Nicole Beesely had just finished being a caregiver for her best friend during her treatment for cervical cancer, when Nicole herself was diagnosed with melanoma. After surgery that was thought to be curative, doctors later discovered that her cancer had spread to her brain and other organs. Nicole then began treatment with the checkpoint inhibitor nivolumab (Opdivo®).
I’m a 29-year-old pharmaceutical representative from Rhode Island and New Jersey. I love traveling, reading, and a good glass of wine! Before I was diagnosed with melanoma, my best friend Christina was diagnosed with cervical cancer. I spent a year fighting right along with her, raising money for hospital bills, and being the best friend I could while my friend was going through something so devastating.
About two months after Christina found out she had no evidence of disease (NED), I went to the doctor myself. I had a lump behind my ear that suddenly had grown bigger. After a biopsy of my parotid gland (a salivary gland near the ear), the doctor found melanoma, and I was sent to Dana-Farber.
My first PET/CT showed only my parotid gland was affected, so the surgeon at Dana-Farber successfully removed the gland without having to sacrifice my facial nerve. I also had a neck dissection to remove all 21 lymph nodes in my neck. The lymph nodes came back clear, so I thought I was safe.
I had 25 rounds of radiation. I lost the hair on the back of my head and hearing in my ear and had some pretty bad burns. It killed my ability to taste and made me super nauseous.
In April, I woke up with facial paralysis. The doctors figured it was Bell’s Palsy, but a full body scan found my brain tumor. They removed the tumor, and I underwent a course of targeted brain radiation.
Two months later, after severe nausea, I was back in the ER, and they told me I had a stomach ulcer and sent me on my way. After that did not resolve, they did a lower endoscopy and found a polyp. After removing it, I had severe cramps, so another surgeon (thinking they perforated my bowel) went in to correct it and found several large tumors in my small and large intestines. He did a small and large bowel resection removing 30cm of my intestines. Everything they removed came back positive for melanoma. Another scan revealed several smaller spots on my liver, other areas of my intestines, and stomach. After that, I began treatment with Opdivo right away.
I had my first Opdivo treatment in June. I had some side effects, diarrhea mostly. In the first scans it looked like my lesions had actually grown a few centimeters. But I only had about three treatments and my doctor told me not to worry—immunotherapy can cause inflammation, which on early scans can make it look like the cancer is progressing. This is sometimes called “pseudo-progression.”
After my 10th treatment, my five lesions have all shrunk by 50% or more. I’m still having side effects, just the diarrhea, which can be severe if you don’t deal with it properly. At first I was put on steroids, but as the dosages went down and I came off them, it would return. It can get worse from time to the time, usually the further out from treatment the worse it gets. (Treatment is every 2 weeks so at the end of my two week cycle it tends to flare up.)
In many ways it hasn’t changed too much about my life, although the way I live may be different. Even though I’m still fighting, I’m happier. I say yes to every experience I’m offered and try to live the mundane days as normally as possible. I feel like that’s really helped me keep things together and not let cancer take over my life.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what type of cancer you have; connecting with someone who gets it, especially your best friend, is always on another level than with anyone else. We always joke that I was jealous of the attention she was getting so I had to go and follow in her foot steps and get cancer, too. It’s a joke people without cancer don’t get, and get uncomfortable when I say it…but Christina and I always say, cancer can be funny! Laughter is the best medicine, no?
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*Immunotherapy results may vary from patient to patient.
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