Pale is the new tan
“You have cancer, and it is stage 3b.”
Those are the words I never thought I would hear, especially at the age of 38.
In high school and college, I was always tanning, and I never wore sunscreen. I felt like I had to have that golden glow or I wouldn’t look as beautiful as I could. I wanted to be tan.
Skin cancer was not on my radar. I didn’t think that would happen to me! Who would have known that years later, my thoughts would drastically change when I went to my family doctor for a routine check-up? That appointment turned out to be anything but routine. My family doctor found an irregular mole on my back and referred me to see a dermatologist who could look into it further. Two weeks later, I found out that I had stage 3b metastatic melanoma cancer. I was now forced to face some challenging decisions in a short amount of time.
My doctor referred me to a melanoma oncology specialist in Michigan who explained all of my options. But I wasn’t satisfied with his treatment recommendations because they included side effects that would take me away from the things I loved doing, like teaching my first graders and going to my nephews’ hockey games and school events.
So my sister proactively researched all possible treatment options available out there and came across an article on former president Jimmy Carter’s cancer treatment for melanoma. He had a care plan that was created around immunotherapy (a cancer treatment that uses parts of your own immune system to fight off diseases like cancer.) This initially sounded like something that could work for me.
She continued to research and found Dr. Sigrun Hallmeyer at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., who was doing clinical trials using this kind of treatment. She had been on the cutting edge of using immunotherapy for melanoma since the beginning clinical trials. I was intrigued by the outcomes of other patients and the groundbreaking effects immunotherapy could have on my cancer. As with many clinical trials, I was running out of time and had to decide how I wanted to move forward with my treatment. So, I set up an appointment with Dr. Hallmeyer and her team immediately.
As soon as I walked in the door and was greeted by the smiling staff, I knew immediately this was the place I wanted help from. When I met Dr. Hallmeyer, she immediately made me feel at ease and part of her family. She was so genuine, authentic and knowledgeable in the area of immunotherapy. She made me feel like I wasn’t just a number in their research study. I was a person she cared about. She took interest in my family, my needs and wants and my treatment goals. After that meeting, I told them to sign me up right away!
One of the most important parts of my treatment was understanding how immunotherapy was different from chemotherapy and how I was a significant part of my own care team. The nurses helped me understand what were and were not normal side effects of the immunotherapy so that I knew when my body could be in danger. Repeatedly, I heard them tell me I could call anytime for anything—even if it appeared to be a “silly” question from me. They never once made me feel like my questions or concerns were an inconvenience. They were there for me, for my treatment and to help me on this journey.
For the next 12 months, I traveled to and from Indiana for treatment. This included spending hours in traffic, weather conditions and many toll booths to make this dream a reality to get the care I wanted and needed. The immunotherapy treatments allowed me to continue to live my life—I went to work (only missing treatment days due to travel), spent time with my family and friends and managed any side effects that came my way.
In May 2016, I had one of the happiest day of my life. I was declared NED or no evidence of disease. I continued immunotherapy until June 2017. To date, my scans have continued to show no evidence of disease.
This summer, I made sure my family and I wore our sunscreen, not being afraid of the sun. I continue to educate others on the effects tanning beds have on your body, even years after you use them. I believe that pale is the new tan.
Having melanoma and working with Dr. Hallmeyer taught me how important my choice was to be part of a clinical trial. If it wasn’t for her practice’s work in immunotherapy innovations, I might not have the same positive outcomes I did.
They saved my life.
By choosing to be a part of clinical trials, I hope my journey will help make the road a little easier for those people who have to go through what I did. I am an advocate for immunotherapy and how it can aide in combating the seriousness of this horrible disease called cancer.
Heather Quinn is a first grade teacher who lives in Mishawaka, IN and is an Advocate Lutheran General Hospital patient. She is a melanoma survivor and skin safety advocate.