Survivor Stories

Jan Bryson

Jan Bryson, Stage IV

Diagnosed 12/20/2013

Even before my melanoma diagnosis, I would go for regular check-ups including an annual skin check. In December 2012, I decided to return early to my dermatologist to have her check a mole on my upper right arm. It’s a mole I always had but it seemed to be changing. She did a biopsy and it came back normal, so I stopped thinking about it for a while.

At my annual skin check in April 2013, I asked the dermatologist to look at that same spot again, as the mole seemed to be growing back. At the time she thought it was fine and I, again, put it out of my mind. I felt safe in the knowledge that the biopsy had been normal. On December 13, 2013 I went back to my dermatologist. The spot was now really ugly and would ooze on occasion. She took a sample to biopsy again but didn’t seem too concerned. Since she didn’t seem alarmed, I wasn’t overly worried either.

I was at work the afternoon of Friday, December 20, 2013 getting ready to go to my company’s annual holiday party when my phone rang. It was my dermatologist with my biopsy results. I immediately became concerned when she began the call by telling me not to panic. She went on to explain that I had an invasive, aggressive form of melanoma. I was shocked. Needless to say I didn’t make it to the company party that night. I was immediately referred to the team at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) for treatment. Early that next Monday, I was at MGH, with my parents and husband in tow, to discuss my options and schedule my first surgery.

It turned out to be worse than I had imagined. My tumor was thick, over the 4mm mark, fast growing, and had spread into one of my lymph nodes. I was stage three and just starting a long journey. An older treatment, Interferon, was the only option for treatment at that time. It had a small chance of working, but at least it was something. I injected myself three times a week for a year in the hopes of getting rid of any remaining cancer cells.

In August of 2015 I found a lump in my arm, kicking off about three and a half years of frequent recurrences – but all in the same place it started. A month of radiation in the spring of 2017 seemed to clear out any remaining melanoma in my arm, but the reprieve didn’t last. In the fall of 2017 melanoma was detected in my left lung, bringing me to stage four. Luckily, it was only two small tumors that were fully removable. I started on infusions of Keytruda that lasted for about 10 months. In the fall of 2020, the melanoma was back again in the form of a plum-sized tumor in my small intestine. The tumor was surgically removed – bringing my melanoma surgery count to seven. As of February 2024, I have just over three years of “no evidence of disease” and counting.

A year of Interferon was one of the toughest things I’ve ever gone through. (Fortunately, there are much better immunotherapy treatments available now.) And it took time to recover from some of the surgeries. But it teaches you how strong you can be. I learned when going through infusions that you can’t think about the months of treatment ahead of you. You have to decide each day if you have it in you to continue. And each day I found that I did. On my worst days dealing with side effects, I would convince myself to “act the way you want to feel.” I couldn’t afford to give in to feeling miserable, so I would recognize the side effects for what they were and continue to move forward. I was able to work throughout my treatment, which was important for me. I needed to think about things other than cancer.

There are also many good things that come out of my experience: I met inspiring people, I became more appreciative of my relationships, and I was motivated to accomplish things I may not have done prior to my diagnosis. As an example, I published a book I hadn’t been brave enough to share publicly. Even cancer has some positives if you look for them.