Survivor Stories

Dawn Hocevar, Stage III

Diagnosed  04/14/2016

I had a mole removed from my right calf in 2008. I was told it was not indicative of melanoma. I went on with my life and in February of 2016, I felt a lump in my right leg above my knee. After having a punch biopsy, I was told I had stage III melanoma and was assigned a team of doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital. I had a PET/CT scan and brain MRI and all came back negative.

Dr. Alex Haynes removed the mass which was the size of a golf ball, along with a sentinel node biopsy. The margins were clear and no detection of melanoma in my lymph nodes per pathology. I spoke with my oncologist Dr. Ryan Sullivan (Available treatments offered were immunotherapy or Interferon, both with significant side effects) and we agreed not to treat any further since there were no other signs of melanoma.

At that point, I was considered “cancer-free”. I saw a dermatologist every six months along with CT scans and visits to my surgeon and oncologist. Five months after the surgery, I found another lump in my groin. It turned out to be melanoma in my lymph nodes. I then underwent a complete removal of lymph nodes in my right groin and was once again “cancer-free” as pathology and scans came back negative. At that point, I went for a second opinion at MSKCC in NYC and met with Dr. Jedd Wolchuk. He concurred that as long as the recurrence was operable that was the best choice of treatment.

Again five months later, my dermatologist found another lump near the last surgical area and I just had surgery to remove that mass. After another PET/CT and brain MRI all came back negative.

I now live in 5-month increments of being “cancer-free”. My melanoma is aggressive, however, not spreading YET. There is no way to detect single cells of melanoma. A mass needs to grow to the size of your pinky nail before any scan can detect and/or large enough to be felt.

I am still considered stage IIIc since it has stayed localized to my leg. We again discuss immunotherapy and weigh my “cancer-free” status against the side effects of therapy. Interferon can give year-long flu symptoms and immunotherapy can create autoimmune disease which becomes life long treatment. My choices now are to take the risk with therapies or live “cancer-free” for five months until another recurrence. In between surgeries, I feel good, although I fatigue easily.

It’s quite a conundrum with no simple solution. I am learning to take life one day at a time, enjoy feeling good and not put off anything for “tomorrow “. I am cutting back my work hours so I have more time for myself.
The sun still makes me happy but I now protect myself from harmful rays.

Protect your children with sunscreen and clothing. Most melanoma is sun damage during childhood. It can lay dormant for years. I have learned that the normal moles on our bodies have the same molecular structure as melanoma cells. Research is being done to try and determine why some moles change to melanoma and others don’t.

“I lay back against the raging waters, not reaching to the shores of past or future and trust that pockets of air exist.”