22 Apr Ellen Lail
I also don’t like to define myself by my disease but as who I REALLY am: I am the wife of Tim, mother of Brandon, stepmother to Dylan and Cierra, sister to Eric, and ‘mommy’ to two Standard Poodles, a King Charles Spaniel, and a special needs kitty
In the Fall of 2009, at the age of 35, I noticed a small new mole on my left cheek. When I mentioned it to my doctor at my annual physical that September, she thought although it looked benign, I should
see a plastic surgeon and have it removed. At the consult, he too felt it looked ‘normal’ but agreed that since it was new, I should have it removed. In December 2009, it was removed and sent for a biopsy.
On December 31, I received the pathology report- it was melanoma. He explained that although it wasn’t visibly large and irregular on the
outside, it had grown deep into the skin layers. After the flood of emotions had somewhat subsided, I just couldn’t understand how
something so ‘small’ and ‘visibly normal’ be melanoma. After several oncology consults, I chose to go to Levine Cancer Institute at Carolinas
Medical Center-Main (formerly Blumenthal Cancer Center). A sentinel node biopsy in February 2010 was positive; a shock to both
me as well as the surgical oncologist (melanoma truly does have a mind of its own and is VERY unpredictable). On March 3, 2010, I underwent a
further wide excision, complete left neck dissection (removing 44+ lymph nodes), the removal of my left parotid gland, and a skin graft. The
pathology report revealed no additional positive nodes and it looked to have been caught just in time. I was labeled as Stage IIIA
and was considered to be medium to high risk of a reoccurrence. After a clear PET scan and being NED (No Evidence of Disease), my
treatment options were to 1)do nothing- the ‘watch and wait’ approach, 2) participate in a clinical trial or 3) take immunotherapy: Interferon (Intron-A). Neither the 2nd or 3rd option demonstrated good results; only 5-7% chance of preventing a reoccurrence. However, after research and the recommendation from my treatment oncologist, I chose to do the Interferon, involving two phases. Phase I consisted of infusions to be taken 5 days a week/4 weeks. It was harder than I ever imagined. My daily trips to Charlotte from Hickory were long and painful. The side effects, consisting of high fever, horrible body aches, nausea, and fatigue were almost unbearable. Phase II required at-home injections
of the same drug (a reduced dosage), and were to be done 3 times a week for 11 months. This meant one FULL YEAR of this drug. I began Phase
II but, after continuing to experience the extreme side effects and weighing my quality of life with the 5-7% chance that it was doing
anything at all, I chose to discontinue treatment. At that point, 3-month check-ups with my oncologist became the routine. Additional scans would not be done unless I began to experience ‘new or unusual’ symptoms. After taking time to recover from the treatments and spending quality time with my family, I returned to work as a school librarian on a part-time basis. I was moving on with life while at the same time, allowing myself more time to spend with family and friends and to take care of ME.
In January 2013, life changed again. I woke one morning to a severe pain in my upper left chest area. Although my gut feeling thought the
worse, I knew that cancer doesn’t USUALLY appear as a sudden pain out of the blue. So, I tried not to jump to conclusions and just made an
appointment with my general practitioner for that same day. I will admit my instincts were getting the best of me and after revealing them
to my nurse practitioner, she immediately sent me for a chest x-ray. By listening to me and my instincts, she probably saved my life. The
x-ray revealed a mass but was very vague. She ordered a CT scan for the next day and it revealed more specifics. I have to note that the
initial doctor’s visit, the x-ray, and the CT scan were all ordered and completed in a matter of 3 days…I couldn’t have asked for a
doctor and his nurse practitioner to be any better at aggressively testing to find answers…they are my true blessings from God! Friday
of that same week, I returned to Levine for a PET scan and although it couldn’t be confirmed until it was biopsied, it was more than
likely melanoma. A lymph node the size of a golf ball had attached itself to my left lung, pulmonary artery, and pulmonary vein and had
become entangled in my phrenic nerve. Because of the location and the risks associated, none of the surgical oncologists felt they would be
able to remove it without major complications. They referred me to one of their AMAZING colleagues, a cardio-thoracic surgeon at Sanger
Clinic. A truly gifted surgeon, who I believe (as well as he did) was led by God that day and he was able to remove it without major
complications. The pathology report confirmed it was melanoma and I was labeled as Stage IV. Due to the attachment to the artery and nerves, he
was not able to remove surrounding tissues to ensure clear margins.
Systemic treatment was not an option so the next step to try and kill the residual cells was high-dose radiation therapy. I received
treatment 5 times a week/4 weeks. Although the radiation treatments caused fatigue near the end of the 4 weeks and for several months after,
recovery from the surgery was the most difficult. It was very painful and there was a long process of healing. I still suffer from damage to my phrenic nerve however it is a small price to pay to have been able to remove the tumor…I would not be here today if there had been more severe complications or if the tumor had not been able to be removed. Another blessing that cannot be dismissed: If the tumor had not been attached to a nerve which caused pain, it is very likely it would not have been discovered until it had spread further. Because I was not receiving scans as Stage IIIA, there would’ve been no way to know it was there until it was too late.
Again, another blessing. As Stage IV (resected), I now have routine PET scans and oncology checkups every 3 months.
So many WONDERFUL medical professionals played a part in my surgery’s success and they deserve MUCH more credit than I can ever give: Dr.
David Duralia (General Practitioner), Lisa Hendon (GP Nurse Practitioner), Dr. Asim Amin (Oncologist), Denise Hogan (Oncology Nurse Practitioner), and last but certainly not least, Dr. Mark Reames (Cardio-Thoracic Surgeon).
As for now, I chose to resign from my professional position and to work full-time in the position of enjoying life! My life consists of
the regular ‘requirements’ of being a wife and mom but more importantly, spending precious time with my husband and children, family and friends, enjoying my ‘fur babies’, traveling, reading, and whatever else comes along! I view each day as a blessing and although I know that melanoma is a part of my life, I try my best not to dwell on it (although some days are harder than others). Even though I know the reality as a Stage IV survivor, I try to find the positives amidst the challenges. Last but not least, I know that when (or IF!!!) melanoma rears its ugly head again, it better know that I’m prepared for the battle and the war…and it is my goal to win them both!
Blessings (and SUNSCREEN!) to all!