Karen Stump: Melanoma stage 4 – survivor

One day in April five years ago was like any other day. Putting lotion on my face I felt a lump in my left cheek. My husband Dennis felt it too. A routine doctor’s appointment the next week confirmed it was a cyst but I needed to see a plastic surgeon for removal.

The plastic surgeon agreed it was a cyst and said there would be no problem removing it at his office. Since Dennis and I were leaving for Florida, we made an appointment for the following week.

Our first hint of trouble came when the fifteen minute procedure turned into an hour and I heard the doctor say “we should have done this in the hospital.”  Trouble really entered the picture the following week when the surgeon said I had melanoma – skin cancer. He had already made an appointment for me with Dr. Schwartzentruber at Goshen. Meanwhile I was reading the brochure about skin cancer that said melanoma was ‘almost always fatal.’ At that point I felt like it was all over. There were a lot of tears shed during the ride home that day.

Dennis and I met with Dr. Schwartzentruber who gave us the news that I not only had melanoma, I had Stage 4 melanoma and it had likely spread to other parts of my body, what he called metastases. Dennis and I were in shock. I felt fine; there were no outward signs of cancer, just that lump under my cheek.

I thought back to how I spent my summers as a teenager, covering myself with a mix of baby oil and iodine while I laid in the sun to capture that warm glow we all wanted so badly. Even as an adult, I sought out the sun and in the winter months used tanning beds. A sun worshipper – that’s what I called myself. Dennis and I loved our tropical vacations but never thought that the sun we loved so much could turn on us and try to take my life.

So began the journey of fighting melanoma. Now it was Dr. Schwartzentruber’s turn to operate. A surgical incision from lip to eye, inside the mouth, nose to gum, removing tissue and muscle to cut out all the cancer cells he could find. I was afraid I would never smile again. Little did I know of the path that lay ahead of me.

There was a spot under my eye that the doctors had been watching and they soon confirmed that the cancer was spreading.  Hope was running thin at this point when Dr. Schwartzentruber recommended inpatient therapy with Interleukin – 2.

Anyone who has ever experienced IL – 2 can tell you it is not easy.  The summer of 2007 was spent going back and forth to 2 North at the cancer center until six weeks of inpatient stays for IL – 2 had been completed. By November, Dennis and I were back to our usual routine of enjoying life and we were off to visit wine country in southern California. It was then that I started seeing double. We came back to Goshen and Dr. Schwartzentruber ordered an MRI. He said the cancer was growing behind my optic nerve and headed for my brain. So instead of shopping for gifts and planning Christmas, I met the wonderful doctors and nurses in Radiology.  Dr. Wheeler explained Tomo Therapy to me and how it could target and kill the cancer cells without damaging my other organs.  It was the last treatment I had.

I know if I hadn’t been at Goshen for treatment that I wouldn’t be here today. I know it and so does Dennis. I am so thankful that I came here. I want to tell everybody about how Goshen cared for me and Dennis.

They treated my whole body – we had the best oncologists plus dietitians, counselors and naturopathic doctors. They took care of every part of me. And if telling my story can stop anyone from going out and lying in the sun without sunscreen, then it’s worth it.

This experience has taught me to be thankful for every day.  For Dennis and me, it’s a no-brainer – if you have cancer – you go to Goshen.

Comments 3

  1. Hi Karen, we may be classmates. I too have had melanoma. Not as bad, but quite a wake-up call for me. No more top-down convertibles. And our sailboat mostly gets used in the late afternoon and early evening, to avoid too much exposure. Melanoma is nothing to mess around with. I am happy that you got prompt treatment. When my dermatologist (so good that I had one) got my biopsy back, he scheduled surgery for the next afternoon. Called me at home that night. I protested, as I had to travel on business. He said, in effect, no, you are going to surgery, and that is that. I did. It was pretty gross, being awake through surgery. Painful, too. Left a large crater on my upper back, which has healed, pretty much. A reminder of what can happen. I call it my “shark bite”. We still spend time at the ocean, but we go late in the day. With an umbrella, and lots of SPF50 sunblock.

    Nine years later, I seem to be fine. Though I still go for regular checkups. My younger sister, who may have taken tap dancing from you, also suffered the same thing. Fair skin, too much sun, not enough sunblock. We live for each day, and avoid heavy sun exposure. My wife buys me special shirts that block UV-A and UV-B. Who knew that this was going to happen?

    I wish you continued recovery and good health. Best regards.

  2. Great to hear from you and so glad you are doing well. Melanoma is nothing to mess with. Congrats on going so long. Sounds like you are doing what it takes. I too stay out of the sun now. We still vacation in Mexico and Florida and live on a lake but I stay under umbrellas and tops of boats!! You take care and your sister also. Thanks for responding!

    1. Thanks, Karen. My sister sends regards. She commented that she views life very differently since her episode. I need to talk more with her, as you can imagine. And yet, it sure is hard to talk about this disease. Your comment about “almost always fatal” keeps rattling around in my head. Until I found your post, I felt quite alone with my melanoma experience. Friends are kind, but have a tough time relating. The onset and severity leaves a person quite unsettled, for a long time. By the way, I too have some facial nerve issues, due to other causes. (The hits just keep on coming, don’t they?) I have learned to adapt, and most people cannot tell. I do the exercises that my surgeon recommends, and hope that things get better. We live, and we learn. Not much choice. Thanks for having the courage to post your experience. Best regards to both you and Dennis. Stay on the shady side of the lake, the house, and the umbrella. Your smile is still wonderful.

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