Janice Updike Patient Story

Take Life a Day at a Time

Janice Updike is a long-time survivor of metastatic melanoma. After several surgeries, including two on her brain, and a lengthy immunotherapy clinical trial, she feels great. She is confident her cancer-free status stems from a talented and intuitive medical team, a great support system and her strong faith.

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One month before my wedding in 1979, I had a mole removed from my left shoulder that I think I’d had all of my life. The dermatologist thought it looked fine but decided to send it to the lab. It came back as Stage III melanoma. We were all devastated.

Soon after, I had surgery to remove three lymph nodes. They also tested positive for melanoma. I was 21 years old, about to be married and newly diagnosed with cancer. I asked, “Why me?” I didn’t know if I was going to make it through a year or even six months. I was pretty scared, but my husband never wavered.

For the first six months, I had a monthly follow-up scan. I considered participating in a national clinical trial, but it would have involved regular air travel to a distant city. They couldn’t guarantee me I wouldn’t be in the “surgery only” group, so I made the difficult decision not to enroll.

That period was a bit of a haze. I still wondered why this had happened to me, and I was depressed and discouraged. I knew, however, that I had to become a more positive person. I put my faith in my doctors and made it through with their help and the encouragement, support and prayers of my husband and family. I was cancer-free for the next three years.

In 1982, my life fell apart. I began having severe headaches, and my right hand kept falling asleep. I was working in a dental office and couldn’t hold onto the tools. My primary care physician sent me for another CT scan, and the doctors discovered the melanoma had spread to my brain.

Looking back, I know that my neurosurgeon is the reason I’m alive today. His colleagues thought there was no hope in doing the surgery. He disagreed. His decision to do the brain surgeries and his encouragement and positive attitude kept me going.

The first brain surgery to remove the tumor was a craniotomy on the left side. After the tumor was removed from my brain, I had no feeling on the right half of my body. My doctor then found a second brain tumor, and I had surgery to remove the tumor from the lower section near the base of my brain. Six weeks after that, during a routine chest x-ray, he found a tumor in my lung. I wondered how much more my body could take, but I had a lobectomy to remove one of the lobes on my left lung.

Recovering from the surgeries made me very fatigued, but I knew I had to get started with physical therapy. The numbness on my right side slowly went away, with the exception of my right hand. I could grip things, but I had no feeling in it. I still have no feeling in it today. I taught myself to print with my left hand, and sometimes it was very frustrating.

In addition to everything else, half of my head was shaved because of the surgeries. Back then, wigs were not very pretty, so sometimes I wore bandanas. I continued to work at the dentist’s office and tried to have a sense of humor about it all, but it saddened me when I realized I was losing my childhood dream of becoming a dental hygienist. I left the dental office and went to work in a very upbeat and busy job so I wouldn’t have time to think and be discouraged.

I began an immunotherapy clinical trial at a local hospital. The treatment was an injection in my lymph node areas to build up my immune system with the goal of no recurrence. Every two weeks for about a year, the injections alternated between the lymph nodes under my arms and in my groin. My only side effect was tenderness for a day or two after the injections.

Toward the end of treatment, our marriage had grown much stronger. After much discussion and prayer, we decided to risk having children. I badly wanted to start a family and had been waiting for years. Fortunately, we had two healthy children.

My life changed a lot after my diagnosis. Using sunscreen turned into a daily habit, and I became more outspoken about preventing melanoma. I’m a big believer in prayer, and I started looking at life as a day-to-day miracle from God. I looked for a way to help others going through cancer treatment, so I began volunteering for the Bloch Cancer Foundation. I want everyone to see that I’m living proof of the results of hard work, a great support team and a positive attitude.

I am so thankful, especially for my physicians. Every time my surgeon sees me he says he can’t believe I’m here because I did not have an easy road. I fought to come back from the surgeries and the depressing times. If you have the opportunity to try immunotherapy, I recommend it. It was scary not knowing exactly what was being injected, but I have not had a recurrence. In my experience, it took a little bit longer for the entire treatment, but it was easier on my body—and I feel great.

Photo: Janice Updike
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