I ended up having surgery the month after my diagnosis to remove the mole, as well as two minor lymph node dissections. I went into surgery thinking that they were just going to remove a mole and I would be good to go. I was naïve. I didn’t fully understand what would come next.
The healing process was long, as the hole took months to heal due to letting my body regenerate the skin from the surgery. Later that summer, I had a PET scan that revealed my lymph nodes were all clear under both arms. Then, around November, I had another PET scan which showed metastatic melanoma. There was a tumor in my left shoulder area and armpit, as well as in my right femur.
I went to Yale University Hospital and reviewed treatment options with Dr. Mario Sznol. He recommended a clinical trial at the NIH involving IL-2 and my own immune cells. I was deemed a perfect candidate during the interview process: young, non-smoker, no past cancer or family history of melanoma. I was slotted to start treatment right after Christmas 2010.
IL-2 basically uses your body as an incubator to multiply the cells and continue to fight off the cancer. I had a reaction around Labor Day in 2011. I broke out in hives all over my neck and upper back. I went to the emergency room and needing a steroid to counteract the reaction. At my next appointment, my doctors and I decided I didn’t need to continue the trial since there was no more visible cancer, my last treatment was September 2012.
Then, between January and July 2012, I went back to the NIH four times for three check-ups. Each trip showed improvements.
However, in July, a scan showed a slight enlargement in my left shoulder area. Once that happened, the NIH directed me back to Dr. Sznol at Yale. He recommended a clinical trial with Dr. Jedd Wolchok at MSKCC pairing ipilimumab with nivolumab. I started this trial at MSK in September 2011. I went to MSK every six weeks for treatment. I showed great reaction to the medicine combination and the cancer around my left shoulder was getting progressively smaller. It was shrinking, but only in very small percentages.
In June 2012, I went in for another surgery to remove the remaining cancer. I continued the clinical trial, even though at that time I didn't have any detectable cancer.
I remained on the trial until May 2014. I went back for scans on my chest, abdomen, and pelvis, but wasn’t receiving any treatment. As of May 2014, I was officially off the protocol. I now go back to MSKCC just once a year for scans.