By Alicia Rowell, Vice President
A silent killer. That’s how melanoma was once described to Karlee Steele, and the silent part would turn out to be especially fitting in her case.
A resident of Austin, Texas, Karlee has worked in media sales for her entire career, the last ten years with Gannett and the Austin American Statesman. She’s a communicator, one who prides herself on strong focus and discipline. She’s also an avid exerciser who teaches cycling three days per week.
I’ve got this.
In 2011 she fought her first bout with melanoma. The tumor was on her leg, and it was Stage II. She was terrified when she got the news, but after two surgeries and a negative sentinel lymph node biopsy, she felt like it was under control and she could move on with her life. “Skin checks every three months?” she said to her doctor. “Easy. I can do that.”
In 2013 a new mole appeared on her shoulder out of nowhere, in a matter of five weeks. This time it was Stage I melanoma. But again, it was surgically removed, and again, she received a clear pathology report. Once more, she felt things were under control, and she told herself and her doctor, “I’ve got this. See you in three months.”
Then in 2015 she felt a swollen lymph node under her arm. This swelling turned out to be Stage IIIB melanoma, and per her doctor, it originated from her second melanoma, the one on her shoulder.
Yes, that tumor on her shoulder was removed. Surgical oncologists remove all cancerous tissue they can see when they excise a tumor, and they make sure there are clear margins all around the tumor. But cancer cells are wily. They can stray as the tumor grows, and those that do stray are not visible to a surgeon’s eye.
So for nearly two years some breakaway melanoma cells from Karlee’s tumor silently existed inside her, silently moving from her shoulder area to her underarm, silently gathering to form new tumors, this time in her lymph nodes.
When she got the Stage III diagnosis, she was not calm. She did not feel like things were under control.
“This is not skin cancer on the outside of your skin, like your first two. It’s inside you,” her doctor told her.
She was hiking with her son when she got the call: “And when the doctor told me it was Stage III I just stopped. Stopped dead in my tracks. Rocks sliding out from under my feet and tears falling. The kind of tears you can’t control. Thankfully, they were hidden behind my sunglasses.”
It’s a hike. A climb.
Karlee and her son, Quade, have a secret spot in the Texas hill country. It’s located up from Lake Travis, through the Lake Pointe Preserve—straight up. This location is hard to get to, a private crystal green spring of water that is their favorite fishing and tadpole spot. “It’s a hike,” she said. “A climb.” They’ve been going for years.
It also may be a metaphor for Karlee’s cancer journey, and perhaps for life, with ups and downs, rewards and beauty, steep segments and rocky ones.
It was on a hike to their spot that she received the call telling her that she had Stage III melanoma, and it was to that spot that they’ve returned many times since then to enjoy all its beauty.
Quade was nine when Karlee received the Stage III diagnosis on that hike. She kept the news from him for a few weeks and finally told him on Valentine’s Day. “It was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had,” she said.
You are your best advocate.
Luckily, the “killer” part of the melanoma description has not held true for Karlee. But there’s no doubt it could have.
Many people don’t notice or don’t think much of swollen lymph nodes. If she hadn’t called her physician when she felt that swelling, the silent killer might have finished its work. But she did call, and she pushed for a needle biopsy and for follow-up.
And that is the two-part message Karlee wants to pass on: Follow your gut. Be your own advocate.
“As busy professional adults, distracted by so much, we don’t always prioritize our health. We take care of our children and our families immediately, but not ourselves. If I hadn’t acted right away and been my own advocate, my story would be much different.”
In 2016 Karlee finished a successful treatment that included surgery and an immunotherapy clinical trial at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “The journey has been long, scary, and enlightening,” she said. She’s spent time with girlfriends, her parents, and others she might not otherwise have spent. And she’s determined to educate and inspire other patients and families by talking about her experience.
Now she has her life back—and Quade has his mom back. And those every-three-month skin checks? Still happening, of course. But she’s got this.
You can watch an interview with Karlee HERE.