Immunotherapy Offers Hope to Melanoma Survivor
Jane McNee, 64, was surprised when her melanoma came back six years after her original diagnosis. This time, it had metastasized to her liver and ninth rib. Her doctor recommended immunotherapy, and the treatment has been successful. The spots on her liver and rib are significantly smaller since treatment began, and she has had only mild side effects. She is enjoying life with her two children and two grandchildren.
One day in July 2008, I noticed a little spot on my right collarbone as I was putting on my makeup. I didn’t worry too much about it until it started to change over time and began to look like a blister. I didn’t have a dermatologist, so I found one and had it checked nearly a year later in May 2009.
After testing was done, the doctor looked at the results and said the spot was melanoma in situ. I had surgery to remove the lesion. When the biopsy determined that the margins were not clean, I had a second surgery to remove a lymph node. To follow up, I went to the dermatologist every three months and an oncologist, who did regular chest X-rays.
In September 2014, five years after being free of melanoma, my family and I celebrated that critical milestone. However, on July 4, 2015, I was at a weekend barbeque and suddenly I got a sharp pain under my breast. I called my family doctor and made an appointment for Monday. The doctor did a chest X-ray and looked at my abdomen. Then he ordered a CAT scan and more blood tests.
The results came back, and he told me that I had Stage IV metastatic melanoma that had spread to my liver and ninth rib. The sharp pain in my rib was the only indication I had that something was wrong. I’m glad now that it happened, so I could be diagnosed and start treatment, but at the time, I was completely shocked. I cried for days. I was so scared for my children, even though they were older, and for my grandchildren. I became depressed and couldn’t stop crying, so the doctors put me on an antidepressant, which helped tremendously.
My doctor recommended immunotherapy, which I had never heard of before. I was scared, but when the doctor told me I’d have fewer side effects and wouldn’t lose my hair, I felt better. I would have done anything to make the cancer go away. By the end of July 2015, I started receiving infusions of an immunotherapy drug every three weeks. They checked the status of my cancer with computed tomography (CT). As of August 2016, my scans still showed something on my liver and rib, but my doctor told me that they may never fully disappear. With immunotherapy, scar tissue can be left behind, and it can be easily confused with active cancer. The tumor may be “dead,” which is what I hope for, but we will continue to monitor it with scans during the rest of my treatment.
I’ve barely had any side effects with this treatment. It’s been amazing. I’ve not had one sick day or any colds since I started the immunotherapy. The only side effect I had was an itchy, pimply rash, which lasted for about six months. It showed up on my back, arms and chest. The doctor said it was a mild rash and prescribed a corticosteroid cream to help with the itching.
I am glad that I received prompt medical attention after the pain in my ribs, but I did seek other opinions just to be safe. Don’t be afraid to get a second or third opinion about your diagnosis. I switched doctors after only two treatments. I found a doctor I felt more confident with, who gave me a stronger sense of hope. It’s important to do what feels right for you.
Everyone needs a support group. I didn’t tell a lot of people about my melanoma or my treatment. I didn’t want to be defined by melanoma. I could not have gone through this without the love and support of my family, especially my children, John and Denise. My two brothers and a sister rounded out my core group of supporters. I never went to a doctor’s appointment or treatment without one of my two children. They made sure I was never by myself.
Communicate to those closest to you to let them know what you need. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Keep busy and do things if you’re feeling up to it. I didn’t look sick, so I didn’t want to act sick. I just kept going, and that worked for me. Having and treating cancer is only one part of your life.
Look for hope. I had several people add me to their prayer chains, which gave me so much hope. Immunotherapy gave me hope as well. I feel blessed that this treatment is available now.
Photo credit: Jane McNee