In June of 2016, a small mole on my right arm started to change. It was getting large, black in color, and really looked disgusting. So I made an appointment with my dermatologist at the VA in Martinez California. She cut it out and sent it to a lab. A couple days later, she called to tell me that it was melanoma. She was very caring and kind. She told me that I shouldn’t worry too much because great things are happening in the field of melanoma cancer treatments. She said since I was strong and didn’t have any other problems like high blood pressure or diabetes, and I was otherwise very healthy that I could overcome this disease.
An appointment was made for me to meet the chief of surgery at Mather hospital. He met with me to discuss our next move. He scheduled a surgery to cut my forearm “wide and deep” with the goal of getting all of the melanoma cells out of my arm. During the same surgery they would also remove two lymph nodes from under my right arm, which were considered to be the “sentinel nodes.” I was told that the “sentinel nodes” are the first place melanoma would show up if it was spreading through my body. After we got the lab results back regarding the lymph nodes, we were told that there were no signs of cancer. I then went for a pet scan at Mather hospital and the results showed no cancer in my body at all. So I was pretty happy.
Then, six months later, on January 10th of 2017, the same doctor who did my surgery scheduled me for a follow-up PET scan. The scan showed progression of the disease with widespread metastasis throughout the liver, involving the spleen and throughout the skeleton. From nothing to a very big something in six months. I had a biopsy done on my liver and it showed three inch mass with malignant cells present morphologically favoring melanoma. I have since learned that melanoma is always there and can metastasize without warning.
So, the battle begins. I am introduced to the doctor who will become my oncologist. Another wonderful, caring, knowledgeable doctor who was ready to give me counsel and become my partner. He made me aware of what we were facing and the options that we had in order to go forward. He recommended a book that I could read to get a better understanding of the disease.
I had stage 4 cancer and if I did nothing, I would be expected to live only three to six months.
I had a several choices regarding treatment, and two that I thought were good. They were pretty new but showing great results. Both of the choices had to do with immune therapy, and because of everything I was reading, this was really exciting to me.
1) combo immunotherapy includes two drugs at the same time. Side effects are very bad.
2) single immunotherapy therapy also effective with less side effects.
I chose single therapy. The goal is to shrink the tumors using my body’s immune system. Cancer cells slip past the immune system by appearing invisible to it. The job of immunotherapy is to activate the system to recognize the enemy. I tell people, ‘This is not a cancer drug; it doesn’t kill tumor cells. This is an immune system drug and my immune system will do the work.
The treatments started on the 14th of February, and after the first couple of treatments, we did another pet scan to test for effectiveness. It was working!
With each treatment I was feeling better and better and I could tell that the sickness was leaving my body.
Now, it is August 9, 2017. After six Keytruda treatments and 10 days of radiation, I’m feeling pretty darn good. I went for a PET scan and the results were NED (no evidence of disease). I just happened to be lucky enough to be diagnosed with my typically fatal—and historically chemo-resistant—form of cancer at the right time for a breakthrough immunotherapy.
The real purpose of this letter is to say thank you to the VA. First of all, thank you for being there and for doing the things that needed to be done quickly and efficiently.
I have joined some melanoma sites on the Internet and I’ve been reading some of the comments by the people there. So many of these people are complaining that they have private health insurance and that they have a lot of trouble with their health insurance companies approving the treatments, meds or scans that they need.
Sometimes they’re not approved at all, and other times they’re pushed off for months and months after they really needed the treatments or meds…insurance company profits seem more important than the patient outcomes. But that is not something that happens at the VA, not in my experience anyway.
I spoke to a doctor at the VA and he said that the reason he became a doctor was to help people. And at the VA, he’s able to do that. In private practice, he would spend his time arguing with health insurance companies to try to get the patients what they needed. “But here at the VA, if I prescribe something, it’s done and done quickly.”
I was in Vermont during the time that I should’ve had my last scan, and rather than fly back to California to do so, I called the VA in White River Junction, Vermont. I spoke to a person who said that she was the “traveling veterans coordinator.” I didn’t even know they had one of those. She got to my doctor in California and had the arrangements made for my PET scan to take place in Vermont at exactly the time I needed. This entire system is just amazing. The people are amazing.
I want to thank every person I came in contact with at the VA, from the doctors, to the nurses, the technicians, the people working the phones, the people who made the appointments, the people who directed me around at the VA as to where I should go next, etc. Every one of them were supportive, helpful, respectful and sincere.
I truly believe that if it weren’t for the VA, I would be very sick right now or dead. So I want to say thank you to VA and thank you for even allowing the system to exist for us veterans. I wish a system like this could exist for all the people in America. And it can if we really want to but that’s another story.