I was diagnosed with stage IIIA melanoma in April of 2015. My primary tumor was a mole on my stomach that I've always had. I noticed it was getting darker and was easily irritated while I was on deplyoment. I didn't think much of it at the time, and I wasn't able to see a dermatologist until I was back stateside a few months later. They excised the entire mole, and called me back the next day to tell me it was malignant melanoma.
Exactly one week after my initial diagnosis, I had surgery to remove additional tissue around the mole (about 6"x1.5"), and a Sentinel Node Biopsy (SNB) to see if the cancer had started to spread to my lymph nodes. Two suspicious lymph nodes were removed and sent in for pathology. One came back positive for melanoma with a small growth of about 2mm. The standard of care when there's any positive lymph node is to go back in and remove all of the lymph nodes (as many as practical) in that area. So, about 2 weeks after my first surgery I had a complete dissection of all the lymph nodes on my left side. Fortunately, none of the other nodes were cancerous. I also had a full-body PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography for all you science nerds) prior to the lymph node dissection to ensure there weren't any metastasis - other cancerous tumors - in more distant organs. Fortunately, that came back negative for any sign of cancer.
Shortly after the two surgeries I moved to Washington, DC for military orders I'd received some months earlier. Fortunately, this put me in a great area because my care was transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. I had no detectable cancer at that point, but because the type of melanoma I had was considered high-risk, I did a course of immunotherapy called Ipilimumab, or "Ipi" for whort, as some extra insurance to help my immune system kill off any remaining cancer cells that might be floating around. I developed a severe case of life threatening colitis after the second dose and spent 9 days as an in-patient at Walter Reed, so I had to discontinue treatment. It took several months of steroids and another drug to get the colitis fully under control, but eventually I worked my way back to normal and started the routine dermatology/scan routine that melanoma patients have to follow for years after a diagnosis.
Just before Thanksgiving 2016, I found a small mass under my left arm, just outside the surgical margins of my lymph node removal. I had it biopsied, and it came back positive for melanoma. This was pretty devastating news because I was nearing the 2-year point of No Evidence of Disease, or "NED", which is a great milestone towards a lifetime of no more melanoma. I also had my routine PET scan just after that, and found out on December 20th that I have growths in both of my lungs and the right lobe of my liver. These distant growths, or "mets" (metastases) put me at stage IV. This was hugely shocking because I've had no symptoms and feel fine. I saw my oncologist right away and together with my husband Nick, decided to start on a drug called Nivolumab. It's another immunotherapy drug but works differently from the last one I took. It has also proven to be more effective and with less toxicity. It's administered by IV in the Chemo unit at Walter Reed, and I'll have infusions every two weeks. I started immediately on 22 December. We'll do new scans in couple months to see what effect the drug is having on the tumors and re-assess at that point.
This is a really long entry at this point so I'll end here for now, but I will update this as often as I can. Stage IV cancer is a scary place to be at age 36. While it wasn't entirely unexpected - I always knew it was a possibility - it's still incredibly shocking, and Nick and I can use as much support as possible. We'd love to hear from you. We are working to build up our support network out here in DC as well.