May 2019 – Guest post by Barb Regis – It’s Skin Cancer Awareness Month, so now seems as good of a time as any to share my story and as a good reminder about the importance of being prepared, not only financially, but making sure you and your family have a plan in place because you never know what curveball life will throw you. I am someone who had always put my patients and my job first. Medicine was – and continues to be my calling. My family has always been important and my husband also accepted and understood how much I love my job and caring for my patients. Everything else could wait…or could it.
I was consciously watching a new lesion on my right arm, and it did not seem concerning – at least at first. Although it was growing, it did not meet the criteria associated with the deadly skin cancer, melanoma, so I thought it was likely something that could wait. So that is what I did.
The lesion continued to grow and was about the size of tip of a pencil eraser. I felt well. I was just a little tired, but that was to be expected with longer hours and many changes at work that required my presence. I continued to watch and wait until my husband, Tony, insisted I go to the dermatologist and that became the priority. That very appointment may have saved my life.
Less than 2% of the population will get melanoma, and I was diagnosed with a rare form called amelanotic nodular melanoma. I beat myself up for being a complacent about my health, as I had diagnosed many melanomas over the years. This was one different, but no excuses.
My surgery went well, and I was left with a 7-inch long scar on my arm. This will serve as a not-so-gentle reminder of this life-changing moment. The PET scan confirmed that at this point the cancer has not spread throughout my body, but two of the three removed lymph nodes were positive for microscopic metastasis. I was officially in Stage 3B with a over a 30% chance of recurrence. That was not acceptable and frankly scary to me, so I became my own advocate. As a result of discussion with my oncologist, I found out I would qualify for immunotherapy. Three months before my diagnosis the FDA had approved for this therapeutic option for Stage 3 advanced melanoma patients. I have had 25 infusions of Opdivo to date, and so far so good as I am fortunate to be able to work and enjoy life with minimal side effects. I am very lucky and grateful many patients have not been as fortunate.
My last treatment is coming up soon and I hope to continue to be NED (no evidence of disease). My journey continues with cautious optimism as I know this therapy is a gift and my best chance for a long productive life. This experience has driven me to advocate not only for others, but also myself. It has reminded me about how important it is to have a plan in place for major life events like this. Having some form of health insurance, a living will and solid financial plan is a must. I don’t want my family to be stressed and cause unnecessary hardships. If I would have waited one more week or even on more day to see a dermatologist, my story could have had a different ending.
So since May is Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness Month, I encourage you to advocate for yourself and make yourself a priority. Take steps to prevent skin cancer by getting skin exams and check out anything new. Be aware of your risks such as family history and previous sunburns. Melanoma affects people of all ages but is becoming more common in the the young. Make sure you ask your health provider questions and have a solid plan in place should the unthinkable happen. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Knowledge is power!
Barb Regis is a Physician Assistant, healthcare advocate, Medical Professional Legal Consultant, author and radio show host. You can find out more at AskthePA.com or through her book Surviving the “Business” of Healthcare – Knowledge is Power!