Melanoma Survivor

Fighting Melanoma Mentally and Physically

Heather Quintal was diagnosed with Stage IIIB melanoma when she was only 22 years old. She had just graduated college and was set to begin her professional career. After the diagnosis, she let go of what her future was supposed to look like. She used yoga, walking and healthy food to heal from two surgeries and the effects of taking an interferon for a year. Now Heather is cancer-free and happily married to Alex. She speaks at high schools and colleges to dispel the common myths about melanoma to people who may think they are too young to be diagnosed with it. She also speaks to survivors, offering suggestions on coping with survival.

The summer before my senior year of college, my dad walked by my bedroom door and noticed a large, dark mole that was slightly raised on my back. He was concerned, so when I saw my primary care doctor, I mentioned it. He didn’t think the mole looked like melanoma, but recommended I see a dermatologist anyway. It took seven months to get an appointment.

The dermatologist used a razor blade to scrape the top of the mole for a biopsy. Three days later, on June 18, 2012, the doctor called and told me to come back to the office and bring my mom. You could have heard a pin drop when we walked into the office. The doctor handed my mom a box of tissues and a glass of water, and they told us I had melanoma. I was scheduled for a wide-excision surgery and a sentinel node biopsy on July 5 to see if the melanoma had spread. The wide excision left an 8-inch scar across my shoulder blade. My doctor had promised that he would stitch it back up so that someday I wouldn't even be able to see it! Two weeks later, the doctor called my mom when we were out for a walk. The results of the sentinel node biopsy showed the melanoma had spread to my lymph nodes, and I was diagnosed with Stage IIIB melanoma. He told her that I should be able to lead a relatively normal life. Statistics told me I had a 20 percent chance that I’d live for one year and a 50 percent chance that I’d survive five years. The doctor scheduled surgery to remove the affected lymph nodes on July 22.

After the removal of my lymph nodes, I had a drain coming out from under my arm that my sister and I named Fred. Fred would help my body to learn to direct the fluid to my other lymph nodes. I took Fred with me everywhere for about five to six weeks. With the lymph nodes gone from under my arm, I was at a higher risk of getting lymphedema. I decided I would do everything I could to prevent it, so I continued walking, sometimes five to seven miles a day. I developed a yoga and meditation practice, and I began to change my eating habits. Fortunately, I never developed lymphedema. As a result of these surgeries, my skin was tight from stitching the skin back together, and my left arm was about an inch shorter than my right arm. Today, I am slowly regaining feeling under my left arm and on my shoulder blade.

After the whirlwind of surgeries that summer, I began a year-long treatment plan. The first month I had intensive treatment, my mom sat next to me every day, and then I began self-injections at home for the next 11 months.

Three months after my diagnosis, my mom was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. My side effects slowly got worse over time. I couldn’t think straight, and I always felt tired and sore. I got into a depressed state and felt like I was stuck in life, but my mom helped me the most even though she was going through her own health challenges.

Strangely, my mom’s and my cancers were very different, but they had one thing in common: the BRAF gene. To my knowledge, no research has been done relating the two cancers, but wouldn’t that be interesting? The BRAF gene in melanoma allows me to be eligible for more treatment options if my cancer were to ever return.

Going through this whole process was hard. I had graduated college with a five-year plan, and dealing with melanoma wasn’t part of the plan. I realized I had to let go of my expectations. I decided to see my situation as an opportunity to change my life, and that it did! Cancer saved my life. I tell others to create positive mantras to help them get through it, such as “I am more than meets the eye,” “I am healthy inside and out,” and “I am deeper than what appears on the outside.”

I had no idea what was happening to my skin during my teenage years as a lifeguard and while I was running, biking, hiking and swimming. Now, I warn high school and college students about the dangers of being in the sun without sunscreen and of using tanning beds. I try to dispel a lot of common myths, such as melanoma is an old person’s disease or a red-headed person’s disease or “just” a skin disease. People need to be aware that this disease doesn’t just affect your skin. It’s an internal disease as well.

If I can get one person to realize the risks and dangers the sun poses, then I’ve done my job to help prevent others from getting melanoma.