Hello, fellow melanoma warriors! My name is Kristin Arnone, and I was diagnosed with melanoma on January 5, 2010, when I was 40 years old. Prior to my diagnosis I had no idea of how aggressive and horrible melanoma is. I thought, “Skin cancer – that’s no big deal!” Boy – was I WRONG!!! However, I also learned and wanted to share with all of you that there is HOPE, no matter how bad it seems. ALL things truly are possible with God on your side … and He is – always!
My husband, Steve, first noticed a strange mole in the center of my back in October 2009. He told me that I needed to have it checked, but I was stubborn and didn’t listen to him. I was really scared and didn’t want to hear any bad news, so I put it off for a couple of months. When the mole began puffing up, I knew that I had to see a doctor! I went to see my primary care doctor at the end of December. He was very concerned and shaved off the mole to send for a biopsy. As I had feared, the diagnosis was melanoma.
My doctor sent me to see a plastic surgeon to have the mole and margins removed on January 18, 2010. Another surgeon removed two lymph nodes under my left arm, as they had determined that to be the location the cancer would spread to first if it was on the move. After the surgery, the doctors staged my melanoma as Stage II or III. They were unsure of the actual size of the tumor as my primary care doctor had shaved it off and that made it hard to know the size it was originally. (Word of advice here – if you have concerns about your skin, please see a dermatologist!!! They know the best methods when it comes to skin cancer and taking samples for biopsies.) Testing showed that my lymph nodes and margins were clear, which was a relief. I also had a PET/CT scan that showed no cancer in my body. We were confident that they had gotten all of the melanoma. However, since they were unsure of the actual stage, the oncologist recommended that I do a 12-month regimen of Interferon-Alpha just to be on the safe side.
I began Interferon-Alpha at the beginning of March 2010. For the first month, I went 5 days a week for a 3-hour infusion. After that, I went 3 days a week for a shot. I had two young children, ages 9 and 6, at the time. It was awful, and I would have never made it without the help of my wonderful parents, husband, and many great friends. The only thing I can compare the experience to is having mono AND a low-level stomach flu simultaneously, for almost an entire year!
At the beginning of January 2011, I went to my dermatologist for a check-up. Things had been going well. I had been continuing on Interferon-Alpha and seeing my oncologist regularly, etc. As my dermatologist was examining my skin, he noticed a small, bluish-gray spot under my left arm. It looked like a small bruise under the skin. He wasn’t overly concerned but decided to biopsy it just to be safe. About 2 weeks later, he asked me to come in so that he could “check my scar.” I went to his office, completely confident that all was fine, and he told me that the biopsy showed melanoma. You could have knocked me over with a feather – literally. I was completely shocked and in a daze for many days to come. My husband, Steve, began researching Stage IV melanoma online, which was a huge mistake. The outlook was horrible, and we were filled with complete and utter despair.
Once we realized that the melanoma was indeed NOT gone, I was scheduled for another PET/CT scan. It showed that the melanoma had spread to my liver, spleen, and the lymph nodes under both arms. My local oncologist recommended that I see a melanoma specialist at the IU Med Center in Indianapolis the following day. We went to the appointment with that doctor, and he didn’t give me much hope. He said that he thought I should undergo Interleukin-2 treatments, but that it only had a 17% chance or so of curing me. My husband, my mom, and I walked out of his office feeling as if I had just been handed a death sentence. I was completely numb, and I had no confidence that the IU doctor could help me.
Praise be to God, my mom went to one of her club meetings a day or so later and asked her friends to pray for me. A lady that she didn’t know very well came up to her and told her that her son, Tom, had been diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma several years before. The melanoma had spread throughout Tom’s entire body. It was even in his brain by the time he was diagnosed. His local oncologist basically told him to get his affairs in order and prepare to die because there was nothing that could be done for him. Tom was only 38 years old and had an infant son at the time, so he decided to find someone to help him fight this dreaded disease! He chose to go to Mayo Clinic first. They basically told him the same thing that his local doctor had said. So, Tom went to MD Anderson in Houston. They had a couple of ideas of treatments that they could try, but they were sure that it would only buy Tom a few extra months of life. Tom didn’t give up, though, and he found Dr. Jon Richards in Park Ridge, Illinois. Dr. Richards said that Tom was too young to just give up and die. Dr. Richards said he thought that Tom should fight it and that he would do everything that he could possibly do to help him. Tom underwent Interleukin-2 treatments along with another experimental treatment that was being tested at the time. I am happy to say that Tom is cancer-free to this very day. He has been able to watch his son grow up and graduate from high school, and he and his wife had another son a few years after he won his battle. Tom’s mom gave his phone number to my mom, and I called him later that same day.
Tom shared his story with me and encouraged me to contact Dr. Richards. I did just that and had an appointment scheduled with him for a few days later. My parents, husband, and I made the trip to the Chicago area with a lot of hope in our hearts, after hearing of Tom’s miraculous recovery! The first thing Dr. Richards did when he saw me was to wrap me in the most wonderful, warm, powerful hug I had ever had!!! He told me that he was certain that God would heal me and that he would be the vessel through which it would be accomplished. Needless to say, I knew at that very moment that Dr. Richards would accompany me in my fight for my life!!! He encouraged me to think about it at least overnight, but my husband, Steve, and I had chosen and we didn’t need to think any longer. Steve asked him when we could start, and Dr. Richards said that I could begin the following Monday, which was 4 days away.
Steve went to work the next day and told his boss the specifics of my treatment plan. His boss (a wonderful man) told Steve not to worry about his job. He said that Steve could take all of the time he needed to go to the four separate week-long treatments with me. And he told Steve that one of his co-workers, Dave, had survived Stage IV melanoma several years earlier. Steve talked to Dave and found out that he had also undergone Interleukin-2 treatments. Dave’s melanoma had spread to several areas in his body, even into his bones! Miraculously, Dave was now cancer-free and doing very well.
I started my IL-2 treatments at the beginning of March 2011. My parents moved into our house to take care of our kids while Steve went with me for the four separate week-long treatment sessions at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois. The oncology floor’s staff at this hospital was second to none – they were awesome! While I don’t remember much of the treatments, what I do remember was absolutely horrible. I am not going to lie – it was beyond awful. It was worse than I could have ever imagined, truly. What got me through it was that I had my kids’ photos sitting directly in front of me, where I could see them very plainly and could look at them when I felt like giving up. I also had the following Bible verse posted on a large piece of paper on my wall: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:13. That verse became my mantra. I repeated it over and over and over again to myself, and it got me through!
I finished my IL-2 treatments on May 15, 2011. Since then, my scans and tests have shown nothing but improvement. I had a bit of a setback this past April. My PET scan was clear, but my CT scan showed that some of the spots on my liver were larger…??? I had an MRI at the beginning of May and then another at the beginning of this past August, and there was no change in those 3 months. Dr. Richards said that he is sure that the spots are dead cells or pigmentation. While I am full of hope and feel like I have beaten this thing, I cannot lie. It still is in the back of my mind, always. I still get physically ill when I have to go for another scan and am waiting for results. Once you have heard the words, “You have cancer,” I don’t think you are ever quite the same. And, you NEVER take life for granted from then on, either! I have to say that I now do even the most mundane chores with perfect joy – I am just so grateful to be here and to be ALIVE and able to do them!!! All of the glory belongs to GOD.