Marsha M.

Melanoma - Stage IV

Marsha-M-Melanoma
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My medical oncologist outlined the plan, but then informed me that sometimes it takes a few days for insurance to approve everything, so they would call us when they heard back. We left the hospital, and almost immediately CTCA called. They had already gotten insurance approval. CTCA understands the importance of speed to care, and I started immunotherapy that day!

I was born and raised in Oklahoma. As a child, I grew up going to church and growing my faith. I moved to Kansas from Oklahoma and stayed several years. I married Joey, who lived in Oklahoma, and moved back.

My life is busy, filled with work, family and church. I am a special education teacher, working with fourth and fifth graders. I have three wonderful sons, a stepson and a stepdaughter. Joey and I have eight grandchildren and one more on the way.

I wake up each day talking to God, and I go to bed communicating with him. I give the Lord glory for everything in my life. My faith is an important part of who I am.

In July 2012, I went in for my annual dermatology appointment. My previous dermatologist had left the practice, and I saw a new doctor at that visit. The physician examined me and biopsied two places, both of which had been there previously. Before that day, it never crossed my mind that these spots might be a cause for concern.

I’ll never forget the Friday when the doctor called me with the biopsy results. She told me that both came back as primary melanomas. I sensed an urgency in her voice, but I was unaware at the time what the results actually meant. I went into her office on Monday, and the doctor completed additional biopsies. One melanoma was located on my upper right arm, and the other was on my lower right leg.

After the appointment, I called my daughter-in-law, who is a registered nurse, and told her about my diagnosis. She began crying on the phone. It was in that moment that I realized that maybe things were a little bit more complicated than I originally anticipated.

I completed surgery to remove the melanoma with significant borders. The melanoma on my leg was deeper, and lymph nodes were also removed. I saw a surgical oncologist to remove the one on my leg because it was so deep. They completed a skin graft because so much tissue was removed. I felt that this surgery was the beginning and end of my cancer. I was happy that I was able to resume my life.

Fast forward

In May 2016, I was experiencing pain in my lower right abdomen. I was sent for a CT scan, but no abnormal results were found. A couple of weeks later, the pain subsided, and I moved on, forgetting about the issue.

On December 22, 2018, my husband and I were on the way to Kansas to have Christmas with our kids and grandkids. I was having extreme pain in my lower right abdomen. My husband did not want us to go, but I wasn’t going to miss Christmas! Two of my daughters-in-law are RNs and another was completing her physician assistant studies. What better hands could I be in? When we arrived, I told my daughter-in-law I thought I was having an appendicitis attack. I described my symptoms to her, and she informed me that I needed to go to the emergency room. After a CT scan and ultrasound, the doctor told me the tests found a mass. No one at that hospital had the ability to operate, so I asked if I could go home to a local doctor. I was also concerned insurance wouldn’t pay for care out of state. The doctor said he would release me only if I promised I would go directly to the hospital when I got home. I promised, and he gave me my records. The next morning, we opened Christmas presents, said our goodbyes, and headed to Oklahoma.

On December 23, we checked into the hospital around 2 p.m. All tests were repeated and additional tests ordered. My room had an evolving door of doctors, nurses and surgeons, and they were all puzzled. They went back and forth trying to decide on a plan. Finally, at 4 a.m., they took me to surgery to try to find out what we were dealing with. Afterwards, one of the surgeons came in with a picture of the mass. He stated that there were five surgeons in the operating room. None of them had ever seen anything like it, and no one felt they had the ability to remove it, so the mass was still there. I was given the name of two surgeons who they felt had the experience to tackle it, and the doctor said they were at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA).

On December 26, I made my first call to CTCA®. The team ordered all my records from the past years from Kansas and Oklahoma, saying it would probably take about a week to receive all the records. In less than 48 hours, all my records had been received, and my first appointment was scheduled for January 3, 2019.

When Joey and I walked through the doors of CTCA, we could feel God’s presence. I was overwhelmed with peace and a feeling of wellness. Words cannot adequately describe how we felt. Everyone at the front desk was so friendly. We were given a tour and descriptions of all the services available. We asked a lot of questions, and my team took the time to answer everything. They made us feel like we were the only patients they had that day.

On January 4, 2019, we returned to CTCA. My daughter-in-law came with us. She stated that CTCA was unlike any hospital she had ever experienced. We went to have lunch in the cafeteria, and as we sat down to eat, one of my doctors walked by. He asked if he could join us. We had a lovely visit. We learned why he went into medicine and heard stories of his lovely daughters. When he left, my daughter-in-law stated, “You know that never happens, don’t you? Doctors don’t sit and have lunch with their patients.” She was blown away, and I knew that CTCA was the place I needed to go for treatment.

Choosing CTCA

We met with the surgical oncologist. He drew out pictures and explained the four possible cancers I had, but none of them sounded good. On the diagram, he showed where my ureter and my right kidney were in comparison to the mass. The artery to my right leg was also in the mass. Negative side effects were possible. I could lose my right kidney and have extreme edema in my right leg, causing extreme swelling. My quality of life could be negatively affected. The doctor said if we opted for surgery first, it could last well over 20 hours. The hardest part for me was seeing the color drain from my husband’s and daughter-in-law’s faces. But I didn’t even feel a twinge of fear. I wasn’t scared because I believed God was beside me. I just needed a plan, and I was ready to fight the cancer.

We met my medical oncologist, and I was immediately impressed with him. He further explained my options and gave me his opinion. After providing lots of information, he worked with us to formulate a treatment plan. We were never pressured into anything; the choices were ours to make.

After the biopsy and PET scan results were in, I was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma. I’ll never forget that day. We met with the surgical oncologist for results, and he was almost giddy with excitement! He couldn’t wait to show us that the melanoma was contained, and it was about the size of an avocado. He let us know that the best news was that it hadn’t spread yet.

I spoke with the surgical oncologist about a week later. He had been doing research, and he had also spoken with other doctors throughout the United States who specialize in melanoma. Based on the information he gathered, it was recommended I start with immunotherapy first, then surgery. The goal was to shrink the tumor and keep it away from my kidney. He explained the entire treatment plan to me and informed me of possible side effects.

On January 22, 2019, I elected to start my treatment with immunotherapy. My medical oncologist outlined the plan, but then informed me that sometimes it takes a few days for insurance to approve everything, so they would call us when they heard back. We left the hospital, and almost immediately CTCA called. They had already gotten insurance approval. CTCA understands the importance of speed to care, and I started immunotherapy that day!

Prior to administering the medications, the nurse, my sister and I would pray over the medication. Spiritual support is an additional service CTCA offers. The hospital recognizes that treatment must be focused on body, mind and spirit, realizing the importance of whole-person care, which may include meeting with a chaplain, nutritionist, psychologist, physical therapist and pain management specialist. Everyone from the doctors, nurses, clinicians and support services provide exceptional care.

I did experience some side effects, but CTCA worked with me to quickly address any issues. The immunotherapy was working, and it was shrinking the tumor. By the end of treatment, it shrunk down to the size of a walnut. I was finally ready for surgery. In March 2019, Bristol Meyers Squibb contacted me about their drug that was part of my treatment. I was one of the first melanoma patients to complete this new treatment option. They asked if they could share my story with others about the success I experienced. I of course accepted, wanting to encourage and help others.

In June, we met with the surgical oncologist to review the details of surgery. He gave us plenty of time to ask questions and then wrote down his personal cell phone number in case I thought of anything else. I had surgery to remove the mass on June 26. Originally, we were expecting a 12-hour surgery, with the possibility that they may need to remove my kidney. Two and a half hours into the surgery, the nurse came out and informed my family they were done and closing me up. They were able to remove the cancer, and I did not lose my kidney.

The plan was that I would continue immunotherapy treatments until 2020, as long as the side effects weren’t too bad. It was a safeguard just in case there was any cancer left. I had my first treatment after surgery on August 30, and the side effects hit me hard. My husband describes me lovingly as a tough ole’ bird, but this bird felt like it had been plucked and chased around the barnyard a few times! My husband and my sister questioned if I should continue with these treatments.

On September 27, we met with my care team. It was time for the next treatment. I already knew I could not physically handle any more. My medical oncologist came in through the door and greeted us, but I could tell he was a little uneasy. I quickly spoke up and said, “Let me cut to the chase. I’m not going to have any more treatments.” You could literally see my doctor sigh with relief. He stated he was so happy to hear me say that. He had stood outside the door for a few minutes trying to gather his thoughts. He was going to try to convince me to stop treatments because it was so hard on me physically.

Glory to God

I completed scans in December 2019 and February 2020, and both results showed no signs of cancer. Praise the Lord! On February 7, I rang the bell, a tradition at CTCA signifying the end of cancer treatment. We played music, and I danced all the way to the front cheering, sharing and hugging all along the way. I was so excited to be done with treatment, and I give all the glory to God!

After finding out that I had a cancer reoccurrence, I printed scriptures on healing, and I put them up all around my house. They were meant to remind me that I do not need to walk in fear of dying. My biggest challenge was overcoming fear. I truly believe that the time in between my original cancer diagnosis and my second one was a blessing. God gave me time to grow spiritually. He prepared me to be ready for my cancer journey.

After a cancer diagnosis, your outlook on life changes. During my cancer journey, I needed support, and now I am at a place that I want to help others. I share my cancer journey to provide cancer patients a story of hope. I tell people that a second opinion is important to make sure you are finding the best doctors for you. I also tell people that looking at the internet can be scary. So, it is important to read the Bible for stories of hope.

I am blessed to be able to plan and look toward my future now. I am continuing to teach, and I am happy to work from home virtually during the pandemic. I am trying to build my endurance and focused on getting more active. My husband and I walk every day.  Prior to my cancer treatment, we used to play tennis and bike every day, and my goal is to be able to do that again. I want to build my endurance and focus.

I have learned so much through my experience, and I have grown personally and spiritually. I know I am blessed to be here on this earth for my kids and to watch my grandchildren grow up. The pandemic has separated me from my family physically, and I am looking forward to hugging my grandkids soon. I take time to count my blessings and appreciate my life so much more.

Diagnosed:
July 2012