Finding hope

The reality of cancer’s lifetime and life-limiting diagnosis hits hard when a clean surgical biopsy report is still followed by an 80-percent chance of recurrence if nothing is done besides quarterly checkups. That’s the wallop behind metastatic melanoma. I knew this going into my post-surgical visit with the oncologist, but it is like the punch of hearing the news for the first time when you hear your odds and look at the probability of death from melanoma, if no further measures are taken.

The only good thing about getting melanoma at this point in life is the promise of many new hopeful drugs on the horizon, one which was part of a clinical trial. Luckily I qualified for that trial. However any gamble, and this was a gamble with one option of the trial much less desirable than the others due to harsh side-effects, comes with some risk and those side-effects weighed heavily on my mind. The only thing that weighed heavier was death. I weighed the odds – possibly feeling like I have the flu for a year against potentially dying before my grandchildren are teens. It didn’t seem like much of a decision.

Once all my scans and tests were complete, I was tossed into the randomization for the trial. I prayed silently that whatever way the dice would roll, I would be able to handle the results. My prayers continued to be answered. I was picked for the best of the three options (arms) of the trial – the one my oncologist had hoped I would get, a low dose of Ipilimumab or Yervoy, a promising treatment for melanoma with less harsh side-effects than Interferon.

It’s been a week now since my first treatment, a 90-minute intravenous injection that I repeat every three weeks for the first four doses. Aside from being more tired and the start of a few mouth sores, side-effects have been minimal. I’m still working full-time. I’m still running and working out, although sometimes at a slower pace and intensity. Physical therapy from the surgery went well. If it wasn’t for the scars, I would barely know the difference from my other arm. Now it’s the long diligent march to hopefully avoid lymphedemia, a march that will never end until my last breath.

In all of this, there lies so much hope. I qualified for the trial. I got the best of three trial arms. I’m fully recovered from surgery. Except for the cloud of cancer hanging overhead, I am healthy and strong. One wouldn’t think cancer and hope could sit on the same page together, yet if you don’t grab onto hope, cancer will win. I won’t let that happen.

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Fading to gray

A few weeks ago I went into Cost Cutters and asked the stylist for a haircut to help me transition from coloring my hair to letting it grow out gray because I wasn’t going to color my hair any more. As she combed through my hair, she said, “Until it all grows out and you say, ‘What have I done?!'” I assured her that wouldn’t happen since I had recently had a life-altering experience.

In the week before I knew the metastatic extent of the melanoma, I thought about all the times I wondered if I should keep coloring my hair. I thought about how I had vowed – in my younger, pre-gray days – to never color my hair and instead grow gray gracefully. That changed with the birth of my youngest child, when gray appeared and I was still a relatively young mother. I caved and colored, which of course requires periodic maintenance if one wants to look more like a respectable person and less like a skunk.

Sitting through that week of the unknown, not knowing how far my future might or might not extend, the thought of a head of gray hair took on a whole new meaning. From this cancerous vantage point, if I lived long enough to be gray, it would be an honor and a privilege. It didn’t matter that I felt much younger than my 55 years, or was more fit than many women decades younger than I. None of that vanity mattered.

What mattered was breathing. What mattered was waking up to look in the mirror and marvel at the gray. What mattered was being given the opportunity to grow gray. What mattered was watching my children and grandchildren grow older and wiser as they watched me gracefully gray.

Sitting alone at our kitchen table one night that week, I promised God and myself that if I lived, it would be an honor to be gray. Other women still question my decision to give up hair dye until I tell them this story. However, the grayer I become the more I will celebrate simply because I am alive. Seems like an easy decision to me.