Looking back, Debbie finds her reaction to being diagnosed with melanoma pretty hard to believe. Only 28 years old at the time, she noticed a suspicious-looking mole on her right calf (it was asymmetrical). Her instincts told her that she should get it checked out by a dermatologist, who took a biopsy to test in the lab. When she called a few days later to let Debbie know she had tested positive for melanoma, Debbie wasn’t very worried. “I thought, oh that’s just skin cancer – it’s not that serious.”
“I was pretty naïve about it back then,” says the Alabama native and mother of two. It wasn’t until her doctor told her that she had already scheduled appointments for Debbie to meet with an oncologist and go in for surgery the next week that she realized just how serious the diagnosis was.
Fortunately for Debbie, she wasn’t in the fight alone. Her husband (and high school sweetheart) David became her biggest supporter, driving her to every doctor’s appointment and taking it upon himself to learn how to administer medication, perform injections, and even pack wounds from her surgery. “He never left my side,” explains Debbie. “There is no way I could have gotten through it without him.”
Debbie was able to get into a clinical trial soon after her surgery. Although they had to drive two and half hours for each visit to the clinic, she responded well to the immunotherapy treatment, and after six months her cancer was in complete remission.
Debbie and her husband weren’t the only ones affected, though. Just ten and six years old at the time, her disease and treatment had a very big impact on her daughters, Heather and Alison. Heather remembers having trouble understanding why her dad was giving her mom injections that made her sick. This led her to become very interested in learning all about melanoma.
“Whenever there was a school project I would always do it on melanoma if I could. I guess that was the starting point and from then on, I knew that I wanted to go into a job where I could help people with melanoma.”
Not only did Heather make good on this wish, her sister took a similar path as well. Now 29 and 25, Heather is a radiation therapist and Alison is a registered nurse who administers chemotherapy. Debbie wishes they hadn’t had to witness her cancer treatment at such a young age, but recognizes the positive impact it’s had on them and for others.
“God put my girls here are for a reason,” she says. “I don’t want to say I got cancer so they would find this path in life, but it’s undisputable that it has led to them doing some amazing work for people.”
Everything seemed to be fine for the next eighteen years, until Debbie discovered a painful knot in her groin in March, 2012. This time, she knew how serious it could be and contacted Heather, who was able to get her an appointment at the cancer center where she works the very next day. An ultrasound, CT scan and biopsy revealed that melanoma had spread to her lymph nodes. Within a week, she had major surgery to remove the nodes and a good deal of tissue. She also received 15 doses of radiation therapy, some of them administered by her daughter, Heather, who reflects on treating her mother:
“It was very, very difficult. Even though I conduct radiation therapy all the time, there were moments where I nearly had trouble with some very basic things. I had to work hard to put the personal part aside and go through the treatment process just like I would with anybody else.”
It seemed like Debbie was out of the woods until she went in for a routine check-up in May, 2013. Although she looked and felt perfectly healthy with no outward symptoms, her CT scan indicated that her melanoma had progressed to stage IV and she now had two lesions in her brain, two in her lung and five in her abdomen. “It was so hard to believe. I didn’t have any headaches or shortness of breath. Nothing.”
Devastated but determined to fight, Debbie traveled to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL, to have brain surgery a few weeks later. The surgeons removed one tumor and discovered that the other one had already disappeared. Her oncologist recommended that she try a recently approved medication, Yervoy, but she had a bad reaction that led to inflammation in her lungs.
In October, 2013, Debbie joined a clinical research trial sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb, where she would receive two 3-month rounds of treatment. After the first round, her scan revealed a 54% reduction in tumor size. After the second round, she was at total tumor size reduction of 68%. That was at the end of April of this year, and now she’s scheduled to transition into a maintenance program where she receives a “booster” dose every three months.
Debbie is hopeful about her own health, and continues to use her experiences with melanoma to help educate others. She and her family members often wear black rubber wrist bands or black ribbon pins that say “Get Debbie’s Spirit/Fight Melanoma” as a way to show their support for melanoma awareness and advocacy. It’s often a conversation starter that helps them explain to people that melanoma is much more than just “skin cancer” and that there are things everyone should do to take care of themselves.
On average, one American dies from melanoma every hour. Although it’s one of the deadliest types of cancer around, melanoma can be highly treatable when detected early. The five-year survival rate for people whose melanoma is detected and treated before it spreads to the lymph nodes is 98%. If you notice any suspicious looking spots on your body, make an appointment to see a dermatologist – it could save your life. For more information about how to perform a self-examination, check out this helpful infographic from the American Academy of Dermatologists.
When it comes to melanoma, prevention is key. Always remember to apply sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) when spending time outdoors and avoid those tanning salons. Just 15 minutes in a tanning bed is the equivalent of an entire day of natural sun exposure. Hats and sunglasses help limit exposure to harmful UV rays, so be sure to accessorize before you go out the door.
If you or someone you care about is diagnosed with melanoma, Debbie offers the following advice:
“Educate yourself as much as you can and seek out any treatment options possible. Don’t be afraid of clinical trials. I’ve been in two, with good results. To the families, please be supportive. Mine has been so critical for me in this fight. If you need to reach out for help, don’t be afraid to do so. The whole family is affected and everyone needs help sometimes.”