Three years ago, I was an active and healthy 24-year-old who was ready to attack my goals. However, on June 26, 2006, I received the terrifying news that my life was instead, about to be attacked by a hidden beast, melanoma. After a routine check-up with the dermatologist, I received a crippling phone call while at work. “Katie, if you have a moment, we’ve processed your pathology and would like to go over the results with you”. Whether it was the doctor’s tone of voice, or the dread I felt in my stomach, I knew my life would forever be changed by my melanoma diagnosis.
My plans for training for a half marathon, moving cities to advance my career, and my trips for the rest of summer all were quickly canceled. I never could have imagined that something like this would happen to me. How could I have cancer when less than 2 weeks ago I had completed a 10k run, felt completely healthy and still had my whole life ahead of me? Today, I know more than the average person does about melanoma. At the time of my diagnosis, all I knew was that it was uncommon and the most serious form of skin cancer. Today, I am very aware that it is highly aggressive, deadly, hard to detect and completely life-changing.
Over the following months, I educated myself on the disease, spread the news to my loved ones, and underwent two serious surgeries to fight this beast. I was referred to a surgical oncologist. Fortunately, I live close to a renowned cancer center, and I found a doctor who specializes in melanoma. Although I was in good hands, I realized that I still had no control over the situation. This feeling came after my first surgery to remove the primary lymph nodes in my upper right leg (where the malignant mole was located). There are lymph nodes all over our bodies, and the closest ones to my melanoma were in my right groin. The goal of this surgery was to determine if the cancer had spread to other parts of my body. Following the surgery, I received the devastating news that the cancer had spread to one of my lymph nodes. I was therefore upgraded from stage I to high-risk stage III.
The call came while I was home alone, and was one of the most devastating experiences of my life. Unable to breathe, I laid on the floor shrieking in disbelief while panic crept up my spine. Although it only took 15 minutes for my family to arrive, it felt like the longest wait of my life.
The purpose of my second surgery was to remove the rest of the surrounding lymph nodes to determine if the cancer had spread elsewhere. Less than 2 weeks after my first surgery, I again found myself in the hospital. This time around, the pain was unbelievable, and I received shots of morphine intravenously every hour.
Melanoma has left me with a 6″ scar on my leg, a 7″ wound on my groin, 2” incision marks where drainage tubes were sutured into my leg, as well as numbness and nerve damage on my leg. More than a year and a half later, I still have a way to go before I am back to my old self again.
Throughout this nightmare, there have been a few positive outcomes. The pathology report from my second surgery showed no further melanoma in my lymph nodes and my doctor was able to say on August 8, 2006, that I was cancer free. By no means does this mean that my fight with melanoma is over, as I still have a high chance of reoccurrence, and there is always the possibility that there remain a few cancerous cells. To minimize this risk, I embarked on a year-long treatment of Interferon, which is a type of immunotherapy (comparable to chemotherapy, but less intense).
I have accepted that I will never know exactly why this happened to me. It could be that I am genetically predisposed to melanoma, or it could be due to sun exposure. It may even be a combination of the two. Although melanoma is more likely in fair-skinned, light-haired individuals (such as myself), everyone is at risk. I always enjoyed sun tanning and felt I looked better with some color. I have had my share of bad sunburns, which is another factor that can cause melanoma. I was never a dedicated tanning bed user, but if I was better educated about melanoma and the risks associated with tanning, perhaps things might have been different.
A week after I received the news that there was no evidence of disease (NED) something clicked. I was on my way to a party that friends were throwing for me when I decided I was going to put together a local benefit to raise funds for the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF). I have never done anything more satisfying in my entire life. In only two months, despite having very little experience and funding, we were able to raise over $3,000. It was astounding how people within my community came together, giving their money to this cause.
Since that first Black Ribbon Benefit (BRB), there have been tremendous outcomes. I have turned the BRB into a yearly event and it continues to grow. We are now planning our fourth annual BRB and have raised over $18,000 for the war on melanoma. This money has gone towards a $100,000 research grant awarded every year by the MRF. I have become a survivor speaker, and was named an “Everyday Hero” by my local media in June 2007. In July 2007, I successfully completed my challenging Interferon chemotherapy treatment, and since then have regained much of my strength.
I have realized that I cannot predict my future, and I think I’ve finally come to terms with that. I’ve realized that what matters most is holding your blessings very close to your heart and appreciating whatever it is in your life that makes it worth living. That is what keeps me going, along with a feeling of hope. I know now that spreading hope is the only way we will beat this ugly disease. I’ve realized it is the most important thing in the world to maintain hope, especially in those darkest of hours. Hope should never be lost. If you deeply believe and have the strength to hope amidst those dark hours, you have already succeeded. Never lose hope; it is an incredibly powerful thing. Hope urged me on and kept me breathing.
Stage 3 Melanoma Survivor