Jan Bryson, Stage IV
I consider myself a responsible person. Even before my 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 check on a mole on my upper right arm. It’s a mole I had 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, feeling safe in the knowledge that the biopsy had come back normal. On December 13, 2013 I went back to my dermatologist. The spot was now really ugly and oozing if I rubbed it with a towel. She did another biopsy but didn’t seem too concerned, so 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 and I immediately became concerned when she told me the biopsy results were in but I shouldn’t 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 party. She recommended Massachusetts General Hospital for treatment, and I was there first thing that next Monday to discuss my options and schedule my first surgery.
It turned out to be worse than I had hoped. My tumor was thick, over the 4mm mark, and had spread into one of my lymph nodes. I was stage three and just starting a long journey. For about three and a half years, the cancer seemed to stay in my right arm, but eventually it landed in my left lung, bringing me to stage four. Luckily, it was only two small tumors that were fully removable. In all, I’ve had six surgeries, one year of Interferon, a month of radiation on my arm, and about ten months of Keytruda which ended in October of 2018. My last recurrence and subsequent surgery (on my lung) was Sept. 2017, so I am now one and a half years without a recurrence and counting.
You can’t go through this experience without picking up a few life lessons along the way. A year of Interferon was one of the toughest things I’ve ever gone through. (Fortunately, there are much better immunotherapy treatments available now.) But it teaches you how strong you can be. I learned 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, when I’d be suffering from side effects, I would tell myself to “act the way you want to feel”. I knew if I let myself sink into feeling miserable there was a chance I might stay there. I continued working throughout my treatment, knowing I needed other things to think about besides cancer.
Eventually, you start to realize there are good things that come out of an experience like this: you meet inspiring people, you appreciate the relationships you have, and it motivates you to do things you wouldn’t have done otherwise. As an example, I published a book I hadn’t been brave enough to do anything with prior to my diagnosis. To get through this journey, you have to find the positives. Even cancer has some silver linings if you look for them.