Cancer doesn't discriminate. It strikes women of all ages and backgrounds. We had the opportunity to interview two very brave women and learn more about how they are coping with cancer.
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My name is Connie Fleetwood and I'm a 48-year-old female. I'm from a tiny town of about 200 people called Gravity, IA and I've lived here pretty much my entire life. This March will be 20 years that I've been battling metastatic malignant melanoma cancer.
In my younger years, I was a person that freely loved the outdoors. Summer was (and despite it all, still is) my favorite time of year. You'd always find me outside. I even coached my daughter's Little League team for four years. I have a very fair complexion, so I would get terrible sunburns. I remember the blister and peel process quite well, over and over again. Defending my skin against the sun was never something that I was very informed about. My family had no prior history with this type of cancer, so I really was quite unprepared to be cautious.
I was 29 when I first became bothered by a mole on my right upper arm. It would catch on my clothes, and eventually became sore. It did not look like anything out of the ordinary; just a light brown colored mole. But it was raised up on my arm, so I went to the doctor to have it removed and sent in for a biopsy. I could tell right away that there was something not right with it; the stitches busted open, and it got very sore. A few days later I went back to have her check it and take the stitches out. That is when I found out it was malignant Melanoma skin cancer.
Then in September of 2002, I started to have a familiar problem. A mole on one of my right toes started catching on my socks and became sore. Given my 10-year cancer-free history, I didn't think anything of it. Nevertheless, I had the doctor remove it for comfort reasons. Well, it came back as melanoma cancer. My doctor was able to remove all of the cancer cells when doing the biopsy, so no follow-up or preventative treatment was recommended.
My daughter had been pushing me for awhile to demand that the doctors do some kind of check-up scan. I don't always recognize which matters should be treated as priorities though and I was feeling fine, so four years passed before I had a check-up PET scan. Finally, in March of 2006 I met with a new oncologist, and he immediately recommended a PET scan. The scan showed that the metastatic malignant Melanoma cancer had returned on the inside of the axilla area (right armpit). It was very scary, as there are several lymph nodes in this area making the cancer all the more likely to spread to other areas of my body.
This third experience with cancer put in motion a very intense therapy process, one that I'm still following today. I was diagnosed with tumor #4 in July of 2008. This time the melanoma was discovered in my colon. My oncologist and his colleagues had never heard of melanoma being found in the colon, which just goes to show how unpredictable and aggressive this type of cancer is.
Tumor #5 was discovered in January of 2010. My PET scan showed that the metastatic malignant Melanoma cancer had spread to my right lung in the top middle nodule.
For my first tumor in 1992, I had a long six-hour surgery to remove the skin cancer from my right upper arm. Tissue the size of a medium orange was removed. A skin graft from my thigh was used to help my arm heal, although I still have a scar (a 'hole') that would fit a baseball. All of the cancer cells were removed, and I'm so lucky to still have my right arm. I consulted with an oncologist for the next 10 years, but no follow-up or preventative treatment was recommended at the time. Over these 10 years, I had monthly check-ups, blood tests/scans, and I remained cancer free. Even when the tumor was discovered on my toe 10 years later, no follow-up or preventative treatment was recommended. In hindsight, I truly wish I would have pushed harder.
When my third tumor was discovered in my lymph nodes in 2006, I had the mass removed immediately, which included the removal of some lymph nodes. The surgery successfully removed all of the detectable cancer cells. Following the surgery, I did six weeks of radiation therapy, three days a week and every treatment was a little stronger than the one before. Right after radiation I had a "port" surgically put in my chest to start interferon chemo treatments (30 million units per day) five days a week for a year.
At one point in the beginning, I tried giving myself interferon shots at home to save me all the trips to the hospital. It was just too strong, and I had bad reactions to just about every medication that entered my body around that time. In the end, I wasn't able to continue with the shots and once again faithfully drove to the hospital every weekday for treatment. Also, in the process, my right lung was burnt from the radiation treatments. It provided its own complications, but at the end of the day, it gets chalked up to just one of the many side effects. I had another PET scan six months later, and thankfully, I was still cancer free following the surgery. I continued the interferon chemo three days a week from this point. My oncologist wanted to be as aggressive as possible this time around with preventative treatments.
Even though I faithfully did preventative therapy, the fourth occurrence still happened in my colon in 2008. At the time, the doctors felt it was too risky to do surgery. They felt that if they cut into the tumor, the possibility of the cancer spreading was high. I continued interferon chemo three days a week until December 2008, hoping and praying that it would kill or at least shrink the cancer area. However, when I had my follow-up PET scan and colonoscopy in December, they both showed no change in the cancer. We decided that the best and only thing to do was to consult with a gastronologist. He recommended I have surgery and remove the cancer in its entirety without the need for a colostomy. After surgery, I went through the healing process, and three weeks later, I began the interferon chemo treatments again three days a week.
A year passed and with regular PET scans, it showed that I was happily in remission. I was able to reduce the interferon chemo treatments to two days a week, and then eventually just once a week. I continued to look and feel fine until January 2010. My PET scan showed that the metastatic malignant Melanoma cancer had spread to my right lung; in the top middle nodule. I followed up with a thoracic surgeon that specialized in lung surgeries. I had the surgery in February of 2010 and thankfully the surgeon was indeed able to remove the cancer with less invasive incisions than previously thought. The pathology report came back with no sign of any cancer.
The most difficult part has been that I haven't been able to work a full-time job since 2006 due to the fatigue, achiness and stiff joints associated with my radiation and chemotherapy treatments. In June of 2006, I started with radiation treatments three days a week at a hospital about 100 miles away from home (for six weeks). Then two weeks after that I started chemotherapy treatments five days a week. The chemo was done, thankfully, at a hospital closer to home about 20 miles away. This schedule of therapy took a tremendous toll on my body. I was tired and achy all the time. I have continuously done some form of chemotherapy ever since (up to the present).
While I still am affected physically from the treatments with occasional nausea and pain in my joints and lower back, I have managed to get most of the side effects under control. I still have quite a bit of difficulty standing and sitting for long periods of time. Currently I do chemotherapy twice a week and it still prevents me from having a full-time job. The past five years have been financially difficult due to the very high cost of all the treatments and medical travel.
The absolute key is to stay positive and don't give up! You have to keep fighting the fight. There have been many days when I haven't felt well, and I just want to give up doing the chemo treatments, but I knew deep down I had to keep fighting, not only for myself, but for my family and friends as well. Staying positive is about 90% of my treatment. It's not always easy. In the last five years of doing my treatments, I have seen many people (some being family and friends) that have not been as fortunate as I have. Many have lost their lives due to this awful disease, and it's a very sad thing to watch that happen when it hits so close to home. You gain a lot of "chemo buddies" when you battle something this serious for so many years, and it's never easy to see someone lose their battle. At the same time, I truly feel that staying positive and open-minded has been vital to my health.
Doctors are vital to the diagnosis and healing process, but they are people just like you and me. If something doesn't feel right or you don't agree with what they are telling you, challenge them! Ask as many questions as you can think of.
I also want to stress how important it is to keep current with routine check-ups. I went 10 years after my first experience with cancer before I did any follow-up scans. My journey may have been a lot different if I would have been more proactive about following up. You should remember that you know your body best. Doctors are vital to the diagnosis and healing process, but they are people just like you and me. If something doesn't feel right or you don't agree with what they are telling you, challenge them! Ask as many questions as you can think of.
Talking about my experience makes it much easier to stay on track. It serves as an excellent reminder of what I've been through, and I've found most people gain a certain amount of respect for what they have by listening to my story. It helps me in a cathartic way as well and gives me tremendous encouragement to know where I'm headed. So I definitely recommend that it's a good idea to talk about what you're going through.
It's also very important to be as open and honest with your family and friends as possible. These are the people that you will be relying on most to help you through the journey. Withholding aspects of the truth in an effort to spare their feelings is less important than it is for them to be as close to the process as possible. They will thank you for your honesty.
As of today, I still do interferon chemotherapy two days a week (30 million units per day) for prevention. Since my last bout of cancer in January of 2010, I've had two rounds of check-ups. Both times my tests have come back clear, so I'm thankfully in remission at the moment. There is no end in sight for my chemo treatments. My oncologist is adamant about me continuing treatments as long as my body remains so tolerant.
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