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Violetta’s Story

Edmonton, Alberta

In my late teens to early twenties, I was healthy. I was in nursing school, I ate well, and I worked out several times a week. I also tanned between two and five times a week: the tanning salon was next to the gym and I had an unlimited pass. I thought I was invincible, so for at least five years I tanned at this frequency without considering the risks of melanoma or any other skin cancer.

The mole that was identified as melanoma in 2009 was one of many that had been on my body for as long as I could remember, but it was on my upper back so I couldn’t see it easily. It was my mom who noticed that it was growing and changing colour. I was so busy with school that the mole wasn’t a priority, though that changed when a lymph node appeared near by right clavicle. I went to the university clinic, where the doctor thought the lymph node was a cyst and and that the mole was normal. I insisted on a referral to a dermatologist, which I am so glad I did, because I was diagnosed with stage III melanoma. The dermatologist told me that my chances of five-year survival were 50%, which was devastating news at 25 years old.

I started ipilimumab on a clinical trial in 2009 as the alternate standard of care, interferon only extended survival by 1 year.  Between 2010 and 2012, I had a sentinel node biopsy that revealed two positive lymph nodes, a radical neck dissection and removal of lymph nodes.  In 2012, I began having migraines. which were due to a golf-ball sized tumour in my right temporal lobe. I  had brain surgery and 5 months later a round of stereotactic radiation. At this point, my diagnosis was stage iv malignant, metastatic melanoma and I developed epilepsy as a side effect of radiation.I had a delayed response to ipilimumab but even before brain surgery my brain tumor was shrinking.— I  celebrated my 10 year “cancerversary” in June 2022!

In several ways, my story highlights the importance of preventative measures. My melanoma likely developed in direct correlation with my use of tanning beds; I might have caught the mole earlier if I had been doing skin checks. After I was diagnosed, I went back to the tanning salon and told the owner I had been diagnosed with melanoma. His response to me was: “my mom had skin cancer. It’s no big deal. It’s like getting over the flu.” It’s clear that individuals who might be using tanning beds are not being looked after by people in the tanning industry, so I encourage people now to be proud of their natural skin.

 

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Gord’s Story

Edmonton, Alberta

In October 2020, my wife and I were driving home from a Thanksgiving and wedding anniversary trip to Jasper National Park when I felt a pain in my right side.  A week later, the pain persisted, and I saw my doctor for blood work and an ultrasound. This was followed up with a CT scan, which prompted an appointment with my dermatologist and an oncologist in November.  I had already been seeing the dermatologist; in 2014, I had melanoma removed from my shoulder, which had likely developed due to sun burns in my teens and early twenties.

At this appointment, I was told I had stage 4 metastatic melanoma, which had spread to my liver and lungs.  The oncologists discussed immunotherapy treatment with me and it was decided that I would receive ipilimumab + nivolumab. The journey ahead reminded me of the story of David and Goliath— but I knew that with faith, I would stay strong and fight this cancer.

Overall, my first three infusions of the treatment were successful— while I did react to the second dose of treatment, I did not experience other side effects during this period.  However, in December I began to have some facial and swallowing issues, and an MRI discovered that the cancer had also impacted my brain.  I underwent gamma knife surgery which was successful.  However, soon after I began to notice that my near-sighted vision was diminishing, and eventually so did my far-sighted vision, causing me to wear multiple pairs of glasses at a time.  It turns out I was experiencing a rare side effect of immunotherapy, so we paused those treatments.  Into March and April of 2021 my vision wavered and at certain points I was considered legally blind.

In April, I also experienced another pain in my side, much like the first one in October 2020. A CT scan revealed that the tumour in my liver had grown back even larger. At this point they started immunotherapy again, alongside five doses of radiation.  After these five doses, the tumour had thankfully reduced in size again!  My next procedure was in July, when I underwent another gamma knife surgery for a new lesion on the brain.  I then had two eye surgeries in August and September 2021; a consultation with my ophthalmologist had determined that inflammation in my eyes from the immunotherapy had caused my irises to bind to my lenses and also impact my retinas.  These surgeries were successful and I have gained back a large portion of my vision, though unfortunately I am still unable to drive.

At this time (October 2022), I am still continuing immunotherapy treatments. I have stayed positive throughout my cancer journey with no complaints, and I know that with continued faith in God and the love and support of my wife I will continue to fight and win this battle.

 

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Karen’s Story

Guelph, Ontario

Here is a little bit about my Melanoma journey.

In 2018, things changed for me, as I was diagnosed with BRAF stage 3 melanoma skin cancer. At the end of February 2018 I spotted a mole on my right chest, it was black with dry flaking around it.

I went to see the family doctor right away and she referred me to a dermatologist.  When I received the appointment from the dermatologist it was not for six months.  I called immediately to see if I could get in sooner, I got in for early March 2018.

The dermatologist said “I do not think it is cancer but let’s do a biopsy.”  A week later, on March 15, I was in a meeting and my phone rang.  It was the Dr he said, “Karen, sorry, you have melanoma.”  He then proceeded to tell me he made appointments with the surgeon already.  It was a week later.  I do not remember anything at all he was telling me.  My husband asked me questions I could not remember a thing.  I dropped the phone and went into panic mode.  My emotions were running very high and I was pushing my husband away as I wanted to look after everything myself.  The word cancer scares anyone beyond words.

I had two major surgeries, one in March 18 on 2mm mole and 5 lymph nodes, the second at the end of April 2018, which removed 15 more lymph nodes. In the second week of May I saw my oncologist, Dr Rajagopal, who is the only melanoma specialist in Halton and Peel Area. I was shocked to learn that the medication I required was not covered by OHIP (Ontario health insurance plan); it had just been approved by Health Canada in 2017. The drugs were very expensive, at $20,000 per month. I also applied to the Trillium Health Fund, but my employer insurance provider that I had been paying into for 15 years covered 100% of the cost. Otherwise, I would have had to spend my retirement savings on the medication. I was told that without accepting treatment, I would die in 2-3 years. While there were some side effects, such as high fevers and migraines, I knew the benefits would outweigh the costs.

I wanted to prove to myself and to other cancer patients that you can do anything.  Since being diagnosed and throughout my treatment, I did my first 5km run with my husband running beside all the way. Even if you are in treatment, you can still take care of yourself and your body.

I came in contact with Save Your Skin when my company was bought out. I had no benefits with the new company, so the Dr. referred me to them.  This group has been very supportive, a great group and I am glad I am volunteering my time for a great cause.  Kathy and Natalie are very close friends to me outside of the business also. Save Your Skin is a family and we watch out for everyone and help each other.  I have been very involved in Save Your Skin awareness initiatives and am on the board.

If it was not for my support team, my hubby Brad Buckler, and the great team at Save Your Skin, I would have thrown the towel in long time ago.

In December 2020, I had a reoccurrence of the melanoma in my lymphatic track and side of my lung.  They could not do surgery where all the little tumors were.   My doctor and I decided to do immunotherapy. I did my first one January 12, 2021, felt great for up to two weeks.  After that it attacked my muscles and vocal cords etc. I could not walk without a cane; I could not talk. The oncologist referred me to a rheumatoid doctor and I was on steroids for 6 months. I was scheduled to do more treatments, but I said no more. The Oncologist agreed with me. I found a physio therapist that would work with me to get my muscles back after no walking, or talking. In a month I was walking with no cane and lifting my arms, etc.

In November 2021, the Dr said there is no signs of cancer or tumors. We did another CT scan in August and we got the all-clear NED. I am living life to the fullest going to the cottage, hiking, doing things I want to do. I tell other people exercise, eat clean, and drink lots and lots of water to help stay healthy.

 

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Rob’s Story

Whitecourt, Alberta

Hello.  My name is Rob Stauffer.

My melanoma journey began in May 2015 with a skin check of my right ear by my wife and follow up visit to my general physician. The Stage 1B positive test from the shave biopsy resulted in the surgical resection of my right ear, negative sentinel lymph node biopsy and plastic surgery of my ear and cartilage. I felt blessed in that the prognosis looked great and I had no significant cauliflower ear. After my surgery I had my skin checked by a dermatologist quarterly, annually by my general physician, and monthly by myself and my partner. I immediately returned to work and continued to enjoy my passions of being in the mountains hiking and fishing, and travelling in the outdoors with adjustments in sun prevention measures, such as living the five sun safety rules.  Life continued as it had in the past – normal.

In the summer of 2018, I started to experience some minor vision and speech issues which were monitored by my general physician for a few months.  These issues continued and in November I was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma of the brain and lung. I was treated surgically, with a craniotomy and gamma knife, at the University of Alberta Hospital. I then had immunotherapy treatment at the Cross Cancer Institute with Opdivo (nivo) and Yervoy (ipi). The decision to be treated with nivo and ipi saved my life. However, I did have some bad side effects and the treatment was briefly shut down. My immune system was full throttle, and I  was afflicted with hepatitis, pneumonitis, and edema. On the bright side, this meant that my immune system was working. I was able to recover with some steroid treatment which reduced the impact, but still allowed the immunotherapy to address the cancer. I was still working at this point. The immunotherapy program started up again and after a month, I continued with just nivo.  However, a few months later I had some further side effects and my treatment needed to be paused again. I was also ill, so working was impossible.  Since then, I have had no further immunotherapy treatment, but no increase in my tumours. I have since started on another journey of my “re-invention.”  I feel fortunate to have been treated by such wonderful doctors and to be alive. When I reflect back now, I really did not understand the many possibilities available for treating my cancer. I have learned that each person is unique and not everyone takes the same route.

My journey to address some of the secondary effects of my medical treatments continues. As a rural Alberta resident continuing my medical, health, and healing journey, I am interested in participating in support groups to learn other people’s experiences, to assist where possible in improving others’ health outcomes and experiences and to focus on my health, healing and enjoying life.

I am glad to share with you my experience in any way that I can, and to assist you in your journey.

 

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Laurence’s Story

Vancouver, BC

It was around 1pm and my partner and I were playing with monkeys on a beach in Thailand. That’s the moment my life changed forever.

Out of nowhere, as if someone had just pulled a curtain down over my right eye, this “black line” fell about a quarter of the way down over top of my vision. It was super strange and I immediately asked my partner if there was something she could see in there, but she said no. Apparently it looked fine. I had an instant thought that, maybe because we had been doing a lot of scuba diving this trip, perhaps a blood vessel or muscle became damaged due to the pressure under water.

A week later, once finally arriving back home, and this black line still very present, I went to a walk-in clinic. And from that first doctor’s visit, it took another 6 or 7 days and 4 more doctor’s appointments before I finally heard the end result. That’s also when I heard the scariest 3 words ever said to me in my life: You Have Cancer.  Ocular Melanoma.

Since I can remember, I’ve always had such an appreciation for the pure natural beauty that this world is, and what it means to be able to reflect on that miracle alone. To be able to see one’s place in this universe, on this planet, in this life… to simply be aware of what it is to be alive.

I could never get enough of it!

Growing up on Vancouver Island surrounded by endless natural beauty, and having the freedom to grow and learn in that space, was a priceless experience in shaping this view and appreciation I had developed early on. It inspired me as an artist, a musician, and kept me curious about expanding my world infinitely. It gave me the inspiration to pursue those dreams and passions and to let Experiences be my guide. When I graduated from high school, I moved to Vancouver with my band to become rock stars and follow the path of the arts.

Since that move 18 years ago, I have witnessed and experienced my dreams manifest and become reality so many times over, in so many different ways.

It was the reason I met the love of my life.

It was also the reason I found martial arts.

Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, to be precise. The art of the Ninja. It’s an ancient Japanese art, comprised of 9 different martial art schools of the past and refined into one discipline. This art has been studied and passed down through centuries and, through the time of feudal Japan, the Ninja became known as assassins used to take out leaders of war to alter or prevent battles from ever taking place. But once I began to study the true art as passed down through the ages, and separated myself from what I thought I knew from TV and movies, a whole new appreciation and way of experiencing the world was opened to me.

Ninja were in reality farmers, peasants, and simple people not wanting to live under the harsh rule demanded of the time. Their outlook on life was that of Peace, Love, and Compassion for all things. For Life. But, as well, they had a very different view to fighting and conflict.

What mattered was Life and Death, not Winning and Losing. Fighting to win serves only the ego. Fighting to survive something that is intent on taking your life, is necessity. Whatever it takes to wake up in your own bed, or to protect those that are worth your own life, are the only reasons to engage in conflict or battle. Fighting, or preventing a fight to literally survive, is the only reason to ever engage.

I’ve studied this concept for 16+ years, traveled multiple times to Japan to study with my sensei and the Grand Master of the art. I’ve passed the one and only test given in the art, which is for the 5th degree black belt.

The test goes like this: you kneel on the floor in seiza (feet crossed under your butt, back straight, hands on your thighs, relaxed). The Grand Master stands behind you, holding a sword, and whenever he feels ready (meaning 1 second or 10 minutes, any length of time he wants), he will project at you for a split second the most intense feeling of “Death”, and then proceed to strike straight down on top of your head with the sword. Your test is to sense this intense feeling of “Death”, and to roll out of the way avoiding the sword. That is it. You need to know when your life is truly in danger, and then make the right decision. In modern times, a Boken (wooden katana) is used for this test, but originally, it was done using a real katana. Failure to survive was not an option. And yes, I passed my test the first time 😉!

So what do I do now? There is a very clear opponent trying to kill me, its intention is very clear. And I can’t roll out of the way. No matter which way I seem to move, I can’t escape. And I can’t even see my foe to face it eye to eye. In the past 3.5 years fighting, I’ve had 2 major surgeries, 3 separate rounds of radiation, changed my diet and tried immunotherapy, but nothing has worked thus far. Ocular melanoma, once inside the body, is very rare and can be extremely difficult to treat.

But just this April 2021, my life was changed again! I was introduced to Kathy Barnard of Save Your Skin Foundation. I was made aware of the foundation through my doctors at BC Cancer, who said it couldn’t hurt to give her a call.

It was one of the most important phone calls I’ve ever had the pleasure to make. A brand new treatment for ocular melanoma had just become available this year, but was going to require travel once a week from Vancouver to Edmonton. And not just once but for 12 treatments.

That would mean 12 plane tickets, 12 hotel nights, taxi’s to and from the hospital and airports… and unfortunately, I was responsible for all the expenses related to getting to my appointments. That is until I spoke to Kathy.

Save Your Skin Foundation has become my “secret weapon”. Now I have the ability and support to be able to fight back. Not to win this fight, but to ultimately have the best chance to survive.

Kathleen Barnard is a cancer survivor from 2003. In fact she’s a miracle. Not only for having beaten her cancer, but for creating this amazing foundation for people suffering from all forms of melanoma. She and her foundation have been taking care of All of the expenses I mentioned in order to get me where I need to be, and to eliminate the extra stress and pressure from the financial burden this would put on anyone.

It’s one of those scenarios you find yourself giving yourself a pinch every once in a while, just to make sure it’s not a dream. Well, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that it’s no dream. Just a dream turned into reality!

To everyone at Save Your Skin Foundation, to all the donators and supporters, to anyone helping in the fight against All cancers, I thank you!

 

 

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Sara’s Story


Victoria, British Columbia

In 2006 I was diagnosed with stage 2 melanoma at age 29 and in 2018 with stage 4. I was always a candidate for melanoma (strawberry blond, blue eyed, sun burns as a child, more than 50 moles) and was receiving yearly dermatologist checks.

In 2006 a small pink bump started growing on my head. At my annual checkup while 8 months pregnant my dermatologist said it looked fine. I told him it bothered me and asked him to take it off. It turned out to be stage 2 melanoma. I had a 1cm margin removed. After my daughter was born I went in for surgery and had another 1cm margin removed and 7 lymph nodes. The margins and lymph nodes were clear. There was no further treatment required.
At the beginning of 2018 I just wasn’t feeling well. I would go to bed for a two hour nap after work and was nauseous when I ate. I also had rib pain that I finally went to the doctor about. He told me I had arthritic ribs and my tiredness was seasonal depression. I asked for blood tests and they came back as something was wrong with my kidneys. I was sent for three more blood tests to confirm that yes, something was up and referred for an ultrasound in April. After the ultrasound I was sent immediately to emergency to get a CT scan. The ER doctor told me that I had stage 4 cancer and to go home and get my affairs in order. I had over 14 brain tumours, the largest being 2.2cm, and too many tumours underneath my skin to count, some the size of golf balls. I had bone cancer in my legs, hips, pelvis, spine and ribs. There was a 10cm tumour on my right ovary, a 5cm one on my left kidney, a 2cm one in the middle of my right lung and small ones on my liver. After a biopsy I learned that it was melanoma but they never found a primary mole.
It didn’t look good, but I believed from the start that I would be cancer free. I had whole brain radiation for a week and then started 4 rounds of immunotherapy (ipilimumab and nivolumab). I had nausea, vomiting, slight rash and extreme fatigue but made it through. I then continued with Nivolumab every two weeks and the only side effect was fatigue. I also had MRI and PET scans every three months. I ended up having a lingering tumour above my right ear and got another week of brain radiation. It has not grown in a year so I believe it is now scar tissue. I had tumours in both femurs that were not responding to immunotherapy and had radiation on those spots.
I also had a new spot grow on my right foot during this time that my dermatologist said was not melanoma and wouldn’t take off. On my next visit I said I think it is something as it is new and he removed the spot. It was basal cell carcinoma. You must be your own advocate!
Spring of 2020 my scans showed no active cancer. Fall of 2020 I had completed 56 rounds of Nivolumab and started getting mouth sores. I am taking a break from treatment and will continue scans every six months for another three years. The last few years have been a blur but I am so grateful to be alive thank you to modern medicine and our excellent health care system. Don’t give up hope.

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Marcel’s Story


Prince George, British Columbia

Marcel’s journey is shared with us by his wife.

Marcel was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma in the fall of
2019, at the age of 40, after having a brain tumour removed. Marcel’s
symptoms started with left sided facial and eye paralysis, which was
misdiagnosed as Bells Palsy. This error delayed Marcel receiving a
correct diagnosis and treatment, which has left Marcel with permanent
left sided facial and eye paralysis. Following the removal of a tumour in the fourth ventricle of his brain, Marcel started a combo of immunotherapy within a couple of weeks of his craniotomy. The outlook was grim for Marcel, as the cancer had spread to his lungs, abdomen, and spleen. The doctors gave Marcel little hope, telling him he was in the fight of his life which could end within months if he didn’t respond to the treatment. Marcel had many ups and downs on the immunotherapy; the treatment came with high grade fevers, extreme dermatitis, hepatitis, and pneumonitis. The immunotherapy was discontinued in February of 2020 and Marcel was put on targeted therapy, as his melanoma was BRAF positive. Marcel remains on his targeted therapy treatment to this day, which has been adjusted over time to reduce the side effects for good quality of life. For over two years now, Marcel has been NED (no evidence of disease)! During this time, he has had several surgeries to correct his vision in his left eye and the facial paralysis on the left side of his face. Marcel continues to live a full life with his two teenaged kids and wife. While Marcel has faced many challenges and obstacles with his diagnosis, the support of his family, friends, and the Save your Skin Foundation makes us hopeful and grateful for his future.

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Heather’s Story


Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

I was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma in July 2017. In August I started nivolumab, of which I had a total of twelve treatments. After the fourth treatment the tumours expanded and caused a blockage in my bowel. I lost about 40 pounds and refused surgery, and in a week the tumour shrank. I was eating and lifting one pound weights to try to get some muscle. I continued treatment till February, when a sinus infection got out of hand and I had half a cup of black pus removed from my sinuses. At this point, I also developed macular cystoid edima in both eyes, and lost my sight. I had it treated, and my sight returned, though I need glasses. At the worst I was seeing 20/200; now I’m at 20/40.
I had two more treatments in March, then stopped because CT scans showed that it wasn’t working. I had one more CT to give a baseline to track the progress of the cancer; that CT showed only two spots of scar tissue and no cancer. That was April 2018. My husband and I have celebrated our fortieth anniversary with our entire family, canoed, zip-lined, climbed a pyramid, gone swimming with dolphins, and attended all of the sport and music events of our grandchildren since then. Life is good, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

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Chris’ Story

Abbotsford, B.C.

Early Signs

My story began sometime during the summer of 2017.  I had been experiencing lower back pain for a few months that nothing seem to relieve, but could, like anyone in their mid-forties, be attributed to any number of things.  Then, one Friday evening late that November, I felt an intense pain on my left side, just behind my lower ribs that dropped me to the floor.  The intense pain lasted only a few minutes, but things never felt normal after that.  I went to my GP the following Monday after being sent home from the ER that weekend with an all clear. He immediately sent me for bloodwork and an ultrasound of my gallbladder, suspecting I may have stones. 

Detection

I knew something wasn’t right when the ultrasound technician asked me to roll onto my side so she could take a look at my kidneys.  She took an awful lot of pictures, and typed way too many notes for it to be a simple case of gallstones.  I was at my GP’s office at 7:30 the next morning to get the results, and the ultrasound showed 3 liver lesions and large masses on both adrenal glands.

The Diagnosis

The week before Christmas 2017, I had a biopsy done of the largest liver lesion, that to everyone’s surprise, confirmed melanoma.  I was terrified because all I knew about the disease was that it was deadly and I knew nothing about the new lifesaving immunotherapies.  Additional CT and MRI scans confirmed that the disease was very advanced and the tumor burden was intense, with many of them doubling in size since the initial ultrasound.  At one point, an oncologist said that it would be easier to list the areas not effected then to list what was.

The ER

The lower back pain began to intensify, but I had very little idea of what was going on.  My overall health was deteriorating quickly and I had started to plan for the worst.  On January 20, 2018, I had gone to bed in such pain that I could not sleep.  Just after 1:00 AM, I asked my fiancée to take me to the ER due to the intensity of the pain.  I remember walking into the ER and sitting at the triage desk when a nurse, named Grace, took one look at me and said “we need to get him to the back now”.  Next thing I remember, I am waking up on a gurney with 5 nurses trying to get my clothes off, checking my vitals and trying to start an IV. It wasn’t until I saw the saw the fear and sadness in my fiancée’s eyes that I put the situation into perspective.  It was at that point that I realized I was partially paralyzed from the waist down.  The paralysis was caused by tumor growth on my hips and pelvis that impeded both sciatic nerves simultaneously. 

Things were so bad at this point, the ER doctors admitted my fiancée and put her in a bed beside me, thinking my journey was coming to an end.  They put me on steroids to reduce the inflammation, and within days I was receiving radiation treatment to my hips and pelvis to try to alleviate the pressure on my nerves.  Amazingly I was up and walking in just days, but it took a month for the full feeling to come back to my legs and groin.

The Staph Infection

Well, you guessed it, I supposedly contracted a staph infection during the week I was in the ER fighting to save my legs.  This was discovered by a blood test, but the location of the infection was never confirmed by either a transesophageal echocardiogram or a full body MRI.  But there was no taking chances, and high dose IV antibiotics started immediately.

The Game Changer

My best guess is that just weeks before the melanoma took my life, I received my 1st combination does of the lifesaving immunotherapy Opdivo (nivolumab) + Yervoy (ipilimumab).  I would be the 1st person that my oncologist knew of who would be treated for a staph infection and be given Opdivo (nivolumab) + Yervoy (ipilimumab) simultaneously.  The 1st couple weeks were a struggle and I felt like I was literally fighting for my life.  My body could not regulate its own temperature, which fluctuated between 36.2°C and 38.8°C, and the cancer was eating a hole through my sternum which hurt so much I couldn’t sit up without being in excruciating pain.  I was covered from head to toe with the itchiest rash I have ever experienced.  I was very thankful to have my brother and father by my side to wake me up every 4 hours to take pain meds and Tylenol, cool me down with cold compresses when I was too hot, and yes, to empty my home made urinal because there was no way I was making it to the bathroom.

The Recovery

The cancer was pretty much stopped in its tracks and the side effects became more manageable over the next few months. By June, the experience took its toll on my poor fiancée and she vanished permanently to be with her dad who was also dying of prostate cancer at the same time.  I struggled physically and emotionally,  trying to define my new normal.  I changed my diet, started juicing, slowly reintroduced physical exercise, went to several types of therapy, read spiritual and self-help books, and started yoga and meditation.  By December 2018, I was able to lace up my running shoes again. 

The results of my latest PET/CT scan conducted February 2019 shows a favorable partial metabolic response with many lesions largely resolved, and the few remaining are shrinking and show only mild uptake compared to previous scans.

 

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Tanya’s Story

St. Albert, AB

In June 2016 I went to get a mole on right shoulder checked, as it had been rubbing on my sports bra and was becoming irritating. I was a newly certified fitness instructor, and I was on top of the world.
The same day that I went to get my stitches from the mole surgery removed, my doctor had the results: the mole was malignant melanoma. The next month, I had my first meeting with Dr Salopek, a melanoma specialist. He recommended a wide excision and a sentinel lymph node biopsy, which I received in August 2016, however, only tissue was actually obtained in the biopsy, and no lymph nodes were actually taken. The results came back undetermined.
In March 2017, I had an ultrasound, followed by a biopsy three days later. After these tests, it was determined that my melanoma was stage III. At this point, I needed a radical lymph node dissection. I took 25 days off from teaching fitness, and went back to the gym as soon as my drains were removed. The test proved that 3 of my lymph nodes were metastatic, however that was only 3/30 so 97% came back clean!
This diagnosis meant that I would need to begin treatment in the form of a clinical trial with Dr. Symlie. In December 2017, I was taken off this trial after it was deemed ineffective for me. I then had one treatment of Nivolumab, however my scans following that treatment revealed that the nodules in my lungs had started to grow, moving my melanoma into stage IV. I then had a lung biopsy. Two weeks later, I began Keytruda, and continued to take classes and teach fitness while I was on the trial. Shortly into beginning treatment, my doctors also discovered that the treatment had destroyed my endocrine system, and I would need ongoing medication for it.
Around this time, the meningioma that had been in my brain started to change and cause swelling. I lost consciousness during a fitness class on April 25 2018, and had a complete craniotomy on May 5. The surgery took place the day before my son’s ninth birthday, so I was even more determined to pull through. The craniotomy revealed that there was a hemangioblastoma growing at the bottom of my brain stem, and a cyst growing around it. As much as I wanted to go back to the gym two days later, I stayed in Glenrose Rehabilitation for five weeks to relearn how to use my right side, a side effect of my brain injury. And then I drove home!
Now, it’s September 2018, and I am still fighting. Sometimes I want to scream, sometimes I want to cry, sometimes I want to give up, but I am getting stronger every day and have faith that my scans are going to come back clear. If I can go through this year of hell and still find the positives in life, I think anyone can— whether it’s getting a good parking spot at the hospital, warm blankets, or friendly nurses. Some days its horrible, but the only way to not get sucked into the viciousness of this disease is to dry our tears and rise above it.

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