Melanoma Survivor

The Right Mindset Helps You Live Life to the Fullest

Laurie Sloan offers this advice to anyone newly diagnosed with melanoma: “Your attitude is crucial. Do not live your life in fear. Trust in your doctor and whatever gives you peace.” As a Stage IV melanoma survivor, she follows her own advice and credits her amazing husband and family, her doctor (“the melanoma man”) and cancer center, and her faith with making that possible.

Having a positron emission tomography (PET) was not the way I planned to spend my 50th birthday. But, that is what happened after a 6-centimeter lump was surgically removed from my chest. What my doctors and I thought was likely a fast-growing cyst was Stage IIIA melanoma.

Six years before I had a mole removed in the same place, but I’d forgotten about it until the surgeon told me in the recovery room that he didn’t like the looks of what he removed. He referred me to a well-known melanoma specialist at a university cancer center about an hour from my small town. I had another PET and a sentinel lymph node biopsy. Both were clear, which meant the melanoma had not spread. However, because of the sheer size of the tumor, my oncologist suggested adjuvant therapy “just in case.” He recommended a clinical trial.

I was aware of clinical trials but had no experience with them. I am an X-ray technologist at our small local hospital, but we don’t have a research area. I really debated about participating. After all, there wasn’t any cancer left. My kids, however, were concerned it might spread and that I’d have regrets if I didn’t do all I could now. They reminded me I am a fighter. I agreed to participate.

The clinical trial included an immunotherapy given by infusion about every three weeks for a year. The side effects were minimal, just a nasty rash. Right before my last treatment, scan results showed a tumor in my small bowel. The melanoma was now Stage IV. Instead of having a celebratory dinner that night, I was thinking about my upcoming bowel resection.

My surgeon removed several inches of my small bowel. My doctor suggested another immunotherapy clinical trial that consisted of leukapheresis followed by a dendritic cell vaccine. I got a shot in the arm three or four times and had no side effects. After, I had leukapheresis to check for a response but, unfortunately, there wasn’t one.

My doctor added a different daily immunotherapy treatment, hoping it would trigger an immune system response. I had to travel an hour each day to the cancer center, but I couldn’t drive so I had to rely on my friends and family to take me. I felt like such a burden, but my church organized a prayer list and I was overwhelmed at the response. I had more than enough offers of rides.

This immunotherapy gave me headaches and flu-like symptoms. I worked in the mornings and had treatment in the afternoons. I would feel wiped out the rest of the day, but I was grateful that I felt well enough to work in the mornings. I had leukapheresis again and though there was no response again, I was deemed cancer-free.

About two years after my diagnosis, in December 2014, we found a tumor in my left lung. During a wedge resection to remove it, my surgeon found a second tumor. These were the tumors that shook me. While I was in the hospital recovering, my lung collapsed and I struggled. I was scared and anxious. I called out to God that night, and I felt an overwhelming peace that enabled me to put the decision making in my doctor’s hands and my healing in God’s hands. That was the best therapy I ever had.

In March, an inoperable tumor was discovered in the mesentery of my pelvis. I began taking a new immunotherapy that was recently approved for melanoma. I’d work a full shift, get my treatment once every three weeks at my local hospital then go home. I felt a little washed out the next day, had dry mouth and thinning hair, but that’s all I can complain about.

At my follow-up two months later, I waited an extraordinarily long time in the waiting room for the imaging results. When I saw my doctor’s face, I knew it was bittersweet news. The inoperable tumor was gone but a new tumor was found in a lymph node by my heart. Removing the tumor would require open heart surgery. But because I’d responded so well to the immunotherapy, it was decided I’d continue treatment and scan again in two months.

My follow-up was July 22, exactly one month before my daughter’s wedding, so I was nervous. The results would determine if I needed open heart surgery right before the wedding. The scan was clear, and I was able to walk my daughter down the aisle. It was very special.

I stopped the immunotherapy after two and half years and now have annual follow-ups. My husband and my family keep me laughing. We play outdoor games, and I hike, kayak and bike. Even during treatment, I’d walk around the block to stay active.

About once a month, I get a single hive on the site of my initial scar on my chest. My doctor said we changed the way my immune system thinks, and it could be a sign it is still working against the cancer. Whatever it is, I love my monthly hive. It’s my sign that my body is still doing something to keep me healthy.