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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Courtney's story

In May of 2009, Courtney went to her doctor for a routine visit and happened to mention two moles she thought may be suspicious. The doctor didn’t think they were anything, but removed them anyways. A few weeks later, at the age of 26, she was told she had Melanoma. The first thing Courtney said was, "This is my fault.  I spent too much time in the sun and tanning beds." The doctor reassured her that it was not her fault, which helped to relieve her guilt.

Courtney’s past experience with cancer was not good. Three of her grandparents died of cancer, although none of them had Melanoma.  She was terrified and feared the worst. Even though the cancer had been caught very early, she worried that it could come back at a more advanced stage later in life.

She met with a plastic surgeon the day following her diagnosis. He told her that he would need to cut down to the muscle to make sure everything was completely removed, but since both moles were in the same general area, he would be able to do it with one large incision. Her surgery was scheduled for 2 days later.  While she was glad that everything was moving quickly, it also reminded her of the seriousness of her diagnosis.

After a sleepless night she arrived at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. on the day of surgery. One of the pre-surgery steps was a cancer-dye test, which allows the doctors to see how the dye goes through the lymph nodes and better understand where the cancer has spread when a biopsy is being performed. Courtney describes this as, “quite possibly one of the worst things I have ever experienced in my life.”

Luckily, the surgery went well and it was determined that all of the cancer had been removed. She was relieved, but since she had a lot of moles on her body the concern never fully went away. About six months after her surgery she had 2 more moles removed that came back suspicious, so the doctor wanted more tissue to be removed to make sure it wasn’t more cancer. Luckily, this could be done under local anesthesia and everything came back ok.

The same thing happened a few months later and Courtney decided she could not keep going through this. The surgeon agreed to remove 20 moles, which meant another surgery, but this time Courtney was not as scared because she knew this would relieve a lot of concern and allow her to take control of her health. The surgery was a success and everything came back clear. Yet, Courtney’s fight against melanoma was not over. She had another scare with a swollen lymph node which required surgical removal, but luckily no more cancer.

It took Courtney awhile to recover emotionally from her diagnosis. She knows this is something she will have to deal with the rest of her life, but also knows she was very lucky to have caught it so early. She sees her oncologist and dermatologist every 3 months and her surgeon once a year. While all of these appointments can get a bit annoying, she knows she is in good hands and is being proactive about her health. She is also thankful for the support of her now-husband and parents through the entire process.

Wearing her trusty sun hat
She is more careful than ever about sun exposure and encourages others to be careful too. Additionally, she urges everyone to trust their instincts and be persistent if they think something is wrong. Her advice to others: “The next time you are working on your tan, put on a hat and an extra layer of sunscreen.  Would you rather have pale skin or lots of scars?  Well, I have both.”

May is Melanoma Awareness Month. To learn more visit the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dawn's story

When she was 32 years old, Dawn went to the doctor because she had been having some spotting between periods and a painful urgency to go to the bathroom. In hindsight she also had no appetite, would get full very quickly after eating a small amount and was lacking energy. Her doctor thought she had an ectopic pregnancy, but 5 pregnancy tests disproved her suspicion. Dawn was sent for an ultrasound and received a call at work the next day saying she had had two masses on her ovaries, one of which was quite large and complex. She was sent to see a gynecologist who was confident the mass was malignant and said Dawn would need immediate surgery and possibly a complete hysterectomy. Because of the seriousness of the diagnosis, Dawn wanted to get a second opinion. Unfortunately, because she had an HMO, she had to go through a lengthy process of changing primary care doctors and getting referrals. The waiting was incredibly stressful.

Luckily, the wait was worth it and Dawn was very happy with her new doctors. Her new gynecological oncologist said that her tumor could be benign, malignant or borderline. She went into surgery expecting to have a complete hysterectomy. While the doctors hoped to save her fertility, they made it clear that their first goal was to save her life. The surgery showed that she had a borderline tumor, which is essentially stage 1A ovarian cancer that was contained to one ovary and had not metastasized. The surgeons removed a 10cm tumor as well as her left ovary and fallopian tube.

The whole process was difficult for Dawn. In additional to the emotional toll of a cancer diagnosis, she had a severe allergic reaction to her painkillers after surgery. The picture to the right shows her broken out in an itchy, burning rash. She took the picture of herself to remind herself that she would hopefully never feel that awful again. Even after her body had recovered, Dawn struggled with the fertility issues that came along with her diagnosis. She was forced to ask herself several difficult questions like, what if I can't have children? What if it's too dangerous to have children? Am I passing on a genetic disaster to my hypothetical children? These are issues Dawn continues to deal with 5 years later.

Dawn knows she dodged a bullet and says that, “Not a day goes by that I don't realize how insanely lucky I was that this wasn't worse than it was.” Yet, her fight is not yet over. To reduce the risk of reoccurrence, eventually Dawn will likely have a complete hysterectomy and removal of her remaining ovary. In the meantime, she has annual ultrasounds and exams to check for any new tumor or cystic growths and needs to be on oral contraceptives to prevent further tumor growth and will only go off of the pill if trying to get pregnant.

This was not Dawn’s first experience with cancer. She lost her dad to colon cancer when she was 22 after a 6-year battle. Through her dad’s battle she, “saw the horrors that the human body is capable of.” She thinks that losing her dad and watching him suffer was probably more difficult than her own diagnosis.

Dawn with Jonny Imerman
Dawn believes that support is vital for anyone facing a cancer diagnosis. She feels that many people don’t fully understand the psychosocial challenges and feelings of isolation that come with a cancer diagnosis. Dawn has now dedicated herself to providing support to others. She began volunteering with Imerman Angels, an organization that connects cancer fighters, survivors, and caregivers to provide one-on-one cancer support. According to Dawn, “Imerman Angels has been my community to try to make sense of all of this and bond with others who have gone through a similar experience. When I am with the Imerman Angels community, I don't feel alone. I don't feel ashamed or embarrassed or any of the other emotions that I have felt at one point between the experience I've had with my dad and my own experience.”

To help support those fighting cancer, please check out Imerman Angels!