Skin cancer is no big deal, right? I believed this as I continued to love beach days, boat days, and time outside from the moment I was born until a few years ago. I truly thought that I would never have skin cancer and if I did, it could just be removed in the doctor office and back to the beach we go!
Metastatic melanoma is deadly; more than that, the things we cancer patients go through should be enough to scare everyone out of the sun. Multiple surgeries, embarrassing spot checks with a group of dermatologists, knowledgeable oncologists recommending radiation to live, and choosing to be part of a clinical trial as there is no known cure for this disease. Does any of that freak you out?
Ignorance is Bliss
I’m hoping it does! It’s not me wishing you any of what’s become my norm, NONE OF IT! What I’ve noticed is that ignorance is bliss when it comes to melanoma. There is some sort of selective hearing; mostly, I find the family and friends can’t deal. I never preach, I never tell others what to do. I think I might be the poster child for what can go wrong and people don’t want to be reminded.
I still go to the beach, I still love the beach. Sanctuary, balance, and peace are found listening to the surf, watching the waves. I do it differently now. Beyond the usual sunscreen, I wear SPF clothing. If sitting, I keep moving position even though I’m under an umbrella. Yes, I even have a shade tent. I PACK…for the beach.
Sounds a bit much? This is life with melanoma. I tend to go to the beach for walks now versus the day. Cloudy days are my favorite. I check the UV index often, not out of paranoia but I consider it knowledge for my day. My love of boating is painfully not fulfilled any more. Spot checks and clinical trial fatigue are the norm.
Does this sound extreme? This is nothing compared to what I and others been through at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. This is my life, no complaints as I’m so very happy to be here! Whether patient like Kevin S. Anderson who believed his melanoma was one and done, or me learning to live differently with the hope of many more years, lessons about skin cancer are costly.
Life changing forever, melanoma is now part of me. While I am disease free (YES!), cancer brings a whole new mind set and melanoma a whole new lifestyle. Please consider what you can do to incorporate sun safety into your life. Sensible measures may save you from life altering melanoma.
Read about melanoma. Educate yourself about melanoma. Be afraid, be sun shy. Stay alive! And thanks for signing up to follow my blog! I love to hear from you in the comments!
***I’ve decided to post this again. Infusion last week, fatigue this week. Please vote, whatever you believe in! It’s how democracy works! Elections matter!
Feeling the Blow
I’m already breaking a political promise; I vowed this blog wouldn’t get into my political beliefs. So like all those running for office, not all promises are kept! You see sometimes life changes our platforms, whether we approve or not! I’ve voted and hope you participate on November 6th if not before. I’d love to hear your thoughts on politics, voting, or cancer. Comments are encouraged and discussion most welcome!
After years of great health, I was dealt the first melanoma blow in 2015. Determined not to have it be a knock out, I came back fighting. Until things didn’t feel right to me again, a facial excision left an area tender; my old boxing injury I joked. Except something wasn’t right and I needed to believe in myself, to fight.
The Main Event (Round Two)
Doctors didn’t believe me and so time went by; we cancer patients have a love-hate relationship with time. (We want more of it, though hate it when it means waiting on test results). Finally, I requested a biopsy; metastatic melanoma again and recommendations that we now go to the medical epi-center of Boston, Dana Farber Cancer Institute being our choice. I was in the big ring now.
I’ve mentioned my cancer before and will again, but not in the context of politics. I could be the poster child for pre-existing conditions. My skin, like yours, holds onto its history; its damage, whether it be sun or other sources is pre-existing. My metastatic melanoma could have happened as a child, or just a few years ago. It’s been two hard punches to the left side of my face.
So, my pre-existing condition just may have been lurking for years, waiting for the optimum conditions to let cancer, medical diagnosis, doctors and dermatologists, become the new normal in my life. I’ve always listened to my physical being, but we cancer patients feel we’re caught cold when going another round. Pre-existing, why yes I am!
Saved By The Bell
Think pre-existing conditions aren’t relevant to you? Yes, I gratefully thought that previous to 2015. I agree that we want to cultivate hope and inspiration, not worry about the what-ifs that can drag us down with a one-two punch. And any given day, you may be in a bout for your life, for your medical treatment.
Insurance discussion is a constant in our home, at our table now. I’m the lucky one because we have insurance to cover my clinical trial drug for now. At some point, we are going to make a decision on insurance expenses and/or treatment. Decisions are regularly made by people who can’t afford insurance premiums. Long before my health issues, I was deeply affected by those I love making tough life choices based on medical expense.
We Are The Champions
So, yeah! Vote early, vote often, but whatever you do vote! We’ve all fallen to the canvas a few times, all taken a few sucker punches. Life is like that. However you vote, at least you’re making a decision to participate, to get up and fight for what you believe in. An outcome, the decision, will be heard; if you vote, you’ve put it out there, given it your best shot!
Contenders, all of us, with our concerns and passions. Believe in yourself, have courage, and stay in the ring. There has never been a more important time to fill out a ballot. Voting is super easy and vitally important. I’ve taken to voting absentee; bringing the ballot home to research the questions and candidates more closely. Vote, vote, vote for what matters to you on November 6th (and wear your sunscreen;).
Next time, I promise not to talk politics. “And if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge…”!
Just a quick note as I prepare for my next infusion…that alone is an assumption! There will be blood tests, spot checking, scans, and evaluations. It’s a time of mixed emotions; I always hope that I pass with flying colors and get the immunotherapy that may be saving my life, I also feel the anxiety of what might not be okay.
I’d really love comments from others on what you do when faced with challenges ahead. Do you take that nervous energy and just go out and have fun? Or do you take on a project to keep your mind and body busy, expending dark energy? Do you get lost in your worry?
And That’s Why It’s Called a Nervous “WRECK”!
A few days out from the process and it’s a rainy day. The beach walk I thought I’d squish in this morning was given a literal “rain check”. Travel bags are now packed, some small projects completed, and next up will be the cats! Wow, to the World Series but it also means no more Red Sox to keep me inspired. I prefer to have bills paid and administrative duties completed. Clean sheets are always a good thing. Diversion, good! Nervous? Hell, yes!
All of this seems silly but in having things in order for now, I expend some tension. Doing that leaves more room for things I will need while at Dana Farber Cancer Institute; it’s my emotional backpack. We all have them and when cancer treatment is imminent, it’s important to NOT fill my emotional backpack with negativity, nervousness, and worry.
Get Ready (by The Temptations)
Here’s a brief list of what I will put in my emotional backpack:
belief in a tomorrow
Hokey as hell but in putting in positive feelings, there is less room for the emotions that drag one down. Sure, they are there (those scary thoughts), and yes, when I walk into the medical facility there is a pit in my stomach. Metastatic melanoma, stage III, is one deadly disease. I’m well versed in what I’m up against.
Choosing to bring all those positive emotions and desires with me gives me strength, strength to get through a long day. I put a positive spin on something I never thought would be a part of my life; I believe that I’m part of something bigger and that satisfies my soul. Cancer research is imperative and clinical trials matter.
Balance will be skewed on my medical day, no doubt. There is no way to discount the possibility of a questionable scan, bloodwork values, or other concerns. This is how those cancer cells are found, this is the chance we cancer patients have. Packing the positives in my emotional bag become the bulwark for whatever this trip brings.
Exhausting, the Yervoy infusion is only one part of the depleting feeling of cancer treatment. Finding your emotional infusion may take time, but look high and low; positive emotion may just be the reserve you need to pack. Take the time to discover what it is for you and how to pack it up for when you need it!
We all need to have emotional reserves for challenges in life. I’d love to hear what works for you. Please share in the comments as we all will benefit from learning what to pack in life’s emotional bag! What works for you?
This blog idea has been a long time coming. There are hard parts with cancer treatment; there are parts that are nearly as tough as our mind makes them! It’s that balance idea and also, I’ve learned to not suppose, guess, or imagine how things will be.
This is written not to frighten, but to inform. It’s a brief description of my radiation experience in 2017. It’s taken some time to process this part of the healing. I’ve kept my mask in the basement, stumbling on it every now and then reminds me of how challenging this was and hopefully, how life saving it is. The pictures were taken the other day, just to show what the mask looks like. If you are considering radiation, remember each experience is unique. Ask me a question if you’d like!
Learning takes on many forms, and this treatment taught me that I don’t always know how I will react, that I am human, and that I am braver than I think. One piece of my metastatic melanoma treatment was radiation. After multiple excisions and healing, the time came for radiation. Conferring with radiation oncologists at Dana Farber, a local team was most sensible as treatment is Monday through Friday.
As a Mom and librarian, I’ve always enjoyed projects with children and teens. Mask making was a favorite, whether paper mache or natural construction. I’d never really thought I’d have my own face sculpted, much less my own personal mask!
This took place at yet another location; the measurements, the warm towels, the casting of my mask. Precision and professional knowledge are key; the medical staff of two worked well together, and in no time at all the drape of some mesh, fishnet substance formed a likeness of me.
Well, not really. My mask fit me but there was little likeness to the flesh and bones person that was to wear it. The real me had another lesson ahead!
Mentioned earlier, there are parts of treatment that we cancer patients don’t quite anticipate. Questions are asked, caregivers take notes and listen hard, but no oncologist, medical person, counselors, or others are able to understand the human reaction, the emotional element. Humans are unique individuals!
Claustrophobic tendencies are not me; I endure scans, MRIs, small closets, and tiny spaces with no concerns. On the first day with the local radiation team, more measurements were noted, the irradiation location exposed on the mask, and equations exchanged. No problem.
Turn of the Screw (by Henry James)
And then, while I lay on the platform they screwed my head to the table. I knew this was coming, I knew the process. Momentary, solitary panic only known to me ensued. Tense body parts, mind wondering how I could ever escape if need be, and a foreboding feeling in every inch of my body.
Fear was trying to drown me. to hold me down, so I pushed back with courage, the desire to heal, and hope beyond this damn radiation. The staff was professional, moving through their routines with more measurements, a warm blanket, and conversation to access my level of comfort. What great acting I did! This was the greatest mask of a lifetime, the emotional one!
Radiation treatments to my left cheek continued for weeks, 5 times each week. A friend had mentioned that he had found waiting room comaraderie in his Boston radiation treatment; my more rural setting meant less of that, though two of us passed each other daily, bestowing sincere well wishes on each other, smiles robust with empathy.
That Healthy Glow
Ironically, my face, the same one that has had multiple melanoma excisions most likely do to sun damage, was brilliantly red after just a few treatments. This “hot spot” focused most of the controlled dose very specifically. My mask provided boundaries for the radiation staff, a way to zero in.
Risks are many when considering radiation. For me, the lack of alternatives meant this was the next step in my path to being disease free. Side effects vary depending on the course of radiation; each situation requires different radiation calculations.
Treatment left me exhausted as it has a cumulative effect. My face was, and still is, super sensitive to the sun. I also have dental trays made with my dentist. Radiation damages salivary glands which helps protect teeth so daily use of the trays with fluoride may protect my teeth. Hearing is questionable as something has changed in that regard.
Radiant, Just Like Wilbur!
Would I do it again? Absolutely! I’ve always been one to shy away from various drug solutions and to work through to a healthier me. Cancer is different and fights back with vengeance, learning new ways to work around medical treatment. This time I’ve chosen to try all options that make sense for my metastatic melanoma because I need to kick this thing called cancer.
Radiation treatment was trickier for me than any other part of this process and I surprised myself with the emotional challenge of being so helpless (and literally stuck!) while the immobility was essential to safe treatment. Each day, each moment I knew it to be the right decision. I learned that each of us reacts differently and that I’m stronger than I think!
Inspiration came when treatment was over, my body whooped, my face fried, and my grandson gave me a hug. Sometimes that is why we go through the scary stuff. It’s really ALL about the hug!
Are you loving the PBS Great American Read? I am. All right, so I forgot to watch last Tuesday at 8 pm but other than that I’m loving it! Gazillions of book talks, promotions, displays, and story times later in my professional life, this librarian is truly loving this event.
Why you ask? I mean, there’s not a lot of bling, blang, or blood, so what’s so enchanting? How often do we have people read us excerpts, promote the words and authors they love, and remind us to read those books on “the someday list”? Interviewees are enthralled with the books they’ve read or voted for on the PBS list of 100; in hearing their thoughts, I’m excited about what to read next.
Inspiration comes from that which we know soothes our soul, and in reading books, that inspiration also comes from a story unfolding, though we don’t know where the reading will lead us. It’s a gamble as to whether the story will take us places we want to go. I’d love to hear your favorite book of all time and where it takes you!
Really? Another Reading List?
The first book on the PBS list that I’m reading is A Prayer for Owen Meany which I’ve picked up from the library. Author John Irving completely captivated me with Cider House Rules so this is the next of his I’ve wanted to read. It’s proving to be a challenge as the clinical trial I’m on for metastatic melanoma leaves me too tired to read! With over 500 pages, I am laughing at myself with the 5 pages or so I read a night!!!!
BUT (that’s a big but!), the writing is rich, the characters I am getting to know intimately, and I’m finding the writing takes me to another time, another place. What better way to escape the world of cancer treatment, than to let the words take me away. Besides, little Owen Meany has captivated my heart and I am sorry to think of his battles ahead.
Journeys Versus Battles
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is on the PBS Great American Read list. I read the first, enough to recommend it to patrons, and with so many books out there, this is my standard philosophy on book series: read one and move on! I loved the journeys Tolkien took us on but found the battles to be arduous, violent, and senseless at times.
I recently had communication with an acquaintance who mentioned the idea of journeys versus battles as we discussed the challenges of cancer. He wrote “I remember being part of a group working on a program for people living with cancer and the doctor who led this said he preferred to refer to this as a ‘journey’ rather than a ‘fight.'” Thought provoking.
This captured me; the concept almost alien but I wanted to love the idea of a cancer journey, or life as a journey with cancer being one of those bumps on the road. Somehow I was feeling Tolkienesque, maybe the accidental adventurer like Bilbo Baggins, on this cancer journey, working through incredible, mythical landscapes with help from some amazingly, magical medical staff. I love to travel so this sounded great!
BUT (this is a bigger but still!) I don’t agree! The idea of cancer as a journey is upbeat and positive; that works for me! The reality is we cancer patients do battle each and every day. We fight back the demons in our minds. We warriors do surgeries, radiation, clinical trials, and defeat the evil darklord, cancer. This is OUR fight against evil!
Like Tolkien’s epic series, we cancer patients are never sure what is around the next corner. We learn to enjoy the time between peril, we battle our Smaug dragons, and fight for our treasure (not a mere golden ring), but time. Some of us lose our battles to time, some of us continue the fight.
Yes, the analogy of a journey is a reasonable one, just fraught with battles to be won! We do our best to not get stranded in the battles, and must prepare with courage for each assault. Our journey may be a bit more dangerous than some but we all have our demons to fight, dragons to slay. Working through this idea, I’m going with life is a journey, and cancer patients the warriors against disease!
Watch the amazing Great Amercian Read on PBS. MY very favorite book on the #GreatReadPBS list? It’s not the ones I’ve mentioned in this blog. Tell me yours in the comments and I’ll tell you mine!
This past Monday, James P. Allison, PhD and Tasuku Honjo won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in cancer immunotherapy. For those of us cancer patients who live because of immunotherapy, this cancer research is critical and the award brings some sort of personal satisfaction.
By stimulating the inherent ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells this year’s Nobel Laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer treatment. Metastatic melanoma is the skin cancer that I have. I participate in a clinical trial and was randomized to receive Yervoy (ipilimumab) which works with T-cells to improve the body’s ability to fight cancers such as melanoma.
Accelerators and Brakes
James P. Allison studied a known protein that functions as a brake on the immune system. He realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumors. He then developed this concept into a brand new approach for treating patients.
In parallel, Tasuku Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells and, after careful exploration of its function, eventually revealed that it also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action. Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer.
Allison and Honjo showed how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes on the immune system can be used in the treatment of cancer. Different strategies, but both accelerating toward a healthy future for cancer healing. I may be just a small mile marker with immunotherapy, but I offer GINORMOUS thanks to Allison, Honjo, and others who have advanced the cause, set us on a path. Here is the scientific background of their work.
Hitching a Ride
So how does any of this relate to me? Us? I’m thrilled because in doing my clinical trial, my primary goal has been to improve the study of cancer. I’m not sure how it works or not for me, but perhaps in working with the staff at Dana Farber Cancer Institute I’m helping someone else down the road as the cancer research continues to move forward.
Yeah, I want to rid myself of cancer but I passionately want to participate in scientific research. Medical “stuff” is not my thing but through this trial, my T-cells are being driven, hitchin’ a ride toward a cure. Maybe not my cure, maybe not yours, but somehow I feel a bit “noble” for being on the right road toward a cure!
This blog isn’t political though I have deeply strong thoughts about my government, the direction I’d like to see the country move, and the lack of integrity everywhere. Instead of talking about Kavanuagh or Ford and others in today’s hearing, I want to discuss language. The use of language in medical scenarios, such as melanoma cancer as described my Mayo Clinic.
Health information is critical to making sense of a frightening diagnosis, mine was a second cancer diagnosis in 2017. The first time the biopsy came back positive for melanoma, my dermatologist left a terrifying message on my phone, the second time the same. I appreciated knowing up front that I have metastatic melanoma, and each time returned his call for more details.
It’s what I describe as a cold call, learning that something is seriously wrong but needing to call to find out the details. Somehow, it would be more fitting to do this in person, but keep in mind time is of the essence when fighting cancer. After each of these calls, life went in to hyper-mode to learn what was next. The power of words, right?
Words can be critical to how we feel, our perspective on healing, and where we find our hope and courage. I want to hear what words have brought challenge to your life, what words have brought joy? Something as simple as clean scans are ginormous in a cancer patient’s life.
Them’s Fightin’ Words
Medically speaking, I’ve had some curiously frustrating situations. For example, in talking to my first local oncologist when I felt my cancer was back, she told me not to overreact. My local dermatologist made an illustration of how my excision was done and described the healing process. Unfortunately, I believed what they said, there words the gospel of medical belief.
Except I pushed for a biopsy, except something felt wrong, except I needed to believe in myself because metastatic melanoma was in another area of my face. No blame as these medical professionals felt they were right, but jeez the time lost while I am feeling the he said she said of medical mistakes. Meanwhile, time had gone by….
My Hearing – No, I’m Not Up for SCOTUS!
Working with Dana Farber has been an incredible experience, the level of knowledge, the cancer research done there, and the integrity of the staff is amazing. Though my local radiation doctor didn’t feel I would have hearing loss, one of my Dana Farber oncologists, said it was very probable. Another he said, she said…I am going with what I know: my hearing is poor, I no longer have ear wax (just what you needed to know, right?), and my left ear just feels different.
Sorry to complain, it’s not my point here at all. This writing is really a reminder to the collective we. We know our bodies, our minds, our spirits. Believe in yourself and find your inspiration. Balance is critical to our healing from disease; accurate information is essential and professional staff builds confidence.
In August, I had a CT scan at Dana Farber that found a questionable area, and the minute I went in to see the best skin cancer oncologist ever (okay, I may be prejudiced!), he greeted my and immediately disclosed his concerns. He also let me know it was not melanoma, and that this was not his area of knowledge.
It turned out to be nothing of concern, but how reassuring to have my oncologist explain what they saw, what needed to happen, and admit that he was not the doctor for this concern. That’s integrity of words, using language to tell what is known, and what direction my medical challenges need to go.
There is no fake news and real news, no he said she said in the medical world. Find your best possible information and staff, and move toward your medical reality confident in the integrity of what is known at this point. I only wish that we could use the words integrity and government in the same phrase…that would be language I’d be hearing!