“Jennifer, you have melanoma.” These four words changed my life forever. I was your typical 26 year old young woman. I had a good job, great family, wonderful friends, a loving boyfriend, and I was enjoying life in sunny San Diego. Before cancer, my biggest concerns were getting to work on time, paying rent (instead of buying that dress I had been eyeing), and figuring out where to meet up with friends on Saturday night. Never did it cross my mind that I might be diagnosed with cancer at such a young age. Cancer isn’t supposed to happen until you are older, right? I was the poster girl for living a healthy and active lifestyle. I ate the right foods, I exercised daily…I mean, how could someone like me who ran every day on the beach get melanoma? And then it hit me. My history of sun exposure.
I have spent a great deal of my life in the sun. At age six I began my career as a competitive swimmer, spending up to 5 hours a day in the sun – 6 days a week. Throw in years of soccer and water polo on top of that, and there truly wasn’t a day where I wasn’t in the sun. After high school I continued my swimming career at UCSB, and even nabbed my dream job, lifeguarding on the beautiful Santa Barbara beaches every summer. Because I have olive skin and never burned, I assumed that I was “safe” from skin cancer. This feeling of invincibility continued after college as I hit the tanning booth every once in a while to keep the “healthy” appearance I had always loved as an athlete. I look back now and see the irony of my faulty logic. Maintaining that “healthy” look would actually be what would make me sick.
Before I found out that I had melanoma cancer I had seen three different doctors about a light pink, almost flesh toned, perfectly round and perfectly symmetrical spot on my left foot. The 1-2 mm growth had risen from nothing over the past couple of months and it seemed to be growing still. When I went to see the doctors it was dismissed time and time again. The three misdiagnoses occurred over a four month period, each time with me anxiously implying that I wanted it gone. The final doctor agreed to remove the growth for “cosmetic reasons.” Although my insurance would not cover the procedure, I went in 2 weeks later to have it removed. A week later my doctor called me with the news. I had stage 2 melanoma and I would need to make an appointment with an Oncologist. He also mentioned that I may need surgery to get clear margins around the growth and to determine whether the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. In addition, I would need a PET/CT scans to search for signs of metastases in my internal organs. I was in complete and utter shock. In one week, I went from feeling like a vain, superficial person, digging into my savings for “cosmetic reasons” to feeling disappointed in myself for not trusting my own instincts.
After another surgery, this time a sentinel node biopsy, I was told by the surgeon that I was “one of the lucky ones!” He reported that they had not found any cancer in the sentinel node and that everything was clear. This was the best news I could have hoped for. We had caught it before it spread! Unfortunately that feeling of euphoria was short lived. My world was once again turned upside down a short time later. Upon further tests, they had found isolated tumor cells – bumping me up from Stage 2 to Stage 3A. Needless to say this was NOT the promotion I was hoping for. I would need to undergo another operation, this time to remove even more lymph nodes. Post surgery, I would then need to begin Interferon treatment, the only FDA approved treatment for Stage 3 Melanoma. Interferon would consist of 1 month IV injections administered daily in the local hospital plus 11 months of lower dose self injections.
After completing a year of Interferon and feeling like I had the never-ending flu (which was no picnic), I am excited to no longer be bed ridden. Though I am extremely grateful for the treatment I underwent, I, like all melanoma patients, was excited to get my life back and get back to doing the things that I love. Most of all, I wanted to stop thinking about lingering malignancies with every minor headache. Although they have found no additional cancer in my lymph nodes, I will never, ever be in the clear. There is a 60% chance my Melanoma will come back. Since there is no cure for melanoma and because we lack effective treatment to prevent reoccurrence, the disease will most likely rear its ugly head, and once again I will have to put on my gloves and enter the ring. I just hope and pray that I can keep the beast at bay for as long as possible. I have big plans for my future and I fully intend to carry them out!
Before cancer I had always wanted to be a nurse and to help others, but the medical field intimidated me, and to be quite honest, the blood and needles made me a bit queasy. Now, after 3 surgeries, a month of IV interferon, 3x weekly self injections, and countless PET/CT and skin exams, I finally have the confidence to make that leap into medicine. Now that I know what it feels like to be the human pincushion, I plan to share that love with others. I believe that my experiences have not only made me a stronger person, but they have enabled me to be more empathetic and understanding of those in similar situations. I can only hope that the research that has led me to this point of the fight can serve to eradicate this sneaky predator.
Written by: Jennifer Moeckel, Stage 3 Melanoma survivor, California