It is truly said cancer may leave your body, but it is forever imprinted on your soul. You don’t just go back to normal. You are changed forever by this horrible, terrifying, painful, beautiful, awesome, brilliant journey.
How You Got to Know You Have Melanoma and what was Your Reaction After That?
The first symptom of my melanoma was some dry, skin inside my belly button. After a few weeks of this mysterious dry, flaky skin, I decided to try to find the cause of it and took a biopsy of the skin.
I was quite shocked and surprised by the diagnosis of melanoma, as I had never had a mole inside my belly button.
What were the Procedures/ Treatments You Went Through?
Two weeks after a complete workup that showed that the melanoma appeared to be confined to the belly button, I underwent a wide excision of the melanoma, which included a long vertical scar on the abdomen (and no belly button left behind).
During that surgery, I also had what is called a sentinel node biopsy, meaning that a lymph node was taken from my right groin (a special test showed that the right groin would be the first place that the melanoma would spread) and checked for cancerous cells.
The lymph node was positive for cancerous melanoma cells, so 2 weeks after that surgery, I had another surgery called a radical groin dissection, this time to remove all of the lymph nodes that might have cancerous cells. This was a several hours long surgery that required me to take 6 weeks off from work. They found a couple of more positive lymph nodes.
I went to physical therapy daily for one month to reduce the swelling from my right leg as lymphedema (persistent swelling after removal of the lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels that drain fluid from an area) is a common side effect from this kind of surgery.
I also received intravenous high dose interferon therapy as a measure to try to reduce the risk of recurrence of the melanoma. I was considered a stage 3 patient at this point, with a 50-50 chance of survival at 5 years.
I felt well and returned to work after the 6 weeks recovery period and was accepted into a clinical trial in Sept 2006 to evaluate a drug called ipilimumab in stage 3 patients to see whether it would decrease the risk of progressing to stage 4 disease, which has a much worse prognosis.
Unfortunately, during a routine scan for the clinical trial, we found that the melanoma had spread to my lungs, although I was feeling absolutely fine.
I had a lung biopsy that confirmed that the melanoma had invaded both lungs, and after a visit to the National Cancer Institute to explore experimental treatments, I opted for a treatment called interleukin-2 (IL-2), at that time, the only FDA- approved drug for stage 4 melanoma.
If I failed this treatment, then my option was to return to the NCI to take part in another clinical trial. Luckily, I responded to IL-2 (which only works 6% of the time) and have been cancer free since August 1. 2007.
Which Treatment Helped You to Recover From Melanoma?
First of all, I am truly blessed to have survived stage 4 melanoma, given the 3 % survival rate I was facing once I was diagnosed with stage 4 disease.
I am grateful for my strong network of family and friends and their constant support.
Interferon, ipilimumab (now FDA approved for the treatment of stage 4 melanoma) and IL-2 all played a role in becoming cancer free. I also feel that a good diet, moderate exercise, and getting plenty of sleep ( back then) strengthened my immune system, especially important in fighting melanoma.
I always try to have a positive attitude, which certainly also plays a role in any recovery process.
For How Long You Battled with Melanoma?
My official diagnosis was May 10, 2006, and although blessed to be cancer free since August 1, 2007, I continue to be a warrior in this deadly disease.
After all, the person at the highest risk for melanoma is someone who has already had one… so I have to continue good sun protection and lifestyle habits
What/Who Inspired You the Most During you Battle with Melanoma?
My daughters, my husband, and my dear friend Elizabeth were a constant source of strength and inspiration. I promised myself and my daughters that I would dance at their weddings.
Now That you have Survived Deadliest Skin Cancer, any Guidance you would like to Share with our Audience?
It is important to do self-exams and get to know the moles and growths on your body to establish what is normal for you. A thorough skin examination once a year or as recommended by your dermatologist is a must. It is never too early or too late to practice good sun protection habits.
Wearing sunscreen SPF 30 or higher every single day, rain or shine, seeking the shade, avoiding peak sun hours, and wearing hats and sun-protective clothing can also help reduce the risk of skin cancer.
If you see something new or notice a change in a mole or other growth or develop a pimple or sore that won’t heal, get it checked! Skin cancer comes in all shapes, colors, sizes, and locations.
I take 2 supplements every day: Heliocare (Polypodium leucotomos extract), an antioxidant that has been shown to decrease the effects of UVA, UVB and infrared radiation on the skin and N-acetylcysteine (NAC), an antioxidant that had been shown in studies to reduce the effects of ultraviolet radiation on existing moles.
My last piece of advice is to choose life, embrace it, and to try to enjoy every day. Stress is unavoidable, but it cannot rule your life.
About Dr. Vivian Bucay
Dr. Vivian W. Bucay a dermatologist in practice since 1991 who is passionate about skin wellness. Outside of the office, she is a mother of 3 daughters, ages 23, 21, and 19 and wife of 25 years to her cardiologist husband, Moises Bucay. Travel and art collecting are two interests of mine that she have had the privilege to pursue.
Dr. Bucay is a dermatologist in San Antonio, TX. Right now, she is working as a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Texas Health Science Centre. In the years from 2004-2007, Dr. Bucay was awarded as a “Texas Super Doctor”. Apart from providing her expertise in healthy skin care, she is passionate about collecting art and traveling. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn.