Carla Rake: Melanoma Survivor
Growing up in the 1980’s and 90’s, sunscreen was not a priority. I used to love to lay out in the sun, covered in baby oil, getting that ‘perfect tan.’ As I grew a little older, I discovered tanning beds. I would go to the tanning salon as often as three times per week to get some color and maintain my sun-kissed glow year-round. I often took vacations to tropical beach settings so I could stay tan and keep a ‘healthy glow’.
Fast forward to August 2013—I was 41 years old. I kept overhearing a commercial about melanoma and a changing mole. This brought my attention to a mole on my abdomen that I thought was changing. So, what did I do? I asked my 9-year-old daughter what she thought. I heard the commercial a few more times before I finally called a dermatologist to schedule a check-up.
The dermatologist performed a biopsy on the mole. I went about life and started a new job. Just two days into my new job, I received the phone call that would change my life. The dermatologist’s office called and asked to see me right away. I went in on the following Monday to learn I had been diagnosed with melanoma. I have to admit, I didn’t really know what that meant. I thought I would have a quick procedure done in the doctor’s office to remove the mole. I quickly learned that is not the case. They advised me to seek care at a comprehensive cancer center, such as Fox Chase Cancer Center. Reality set in. I got to my car, did a quick Google search of melanoma and sat there crying for what seemed like hours.
September 2013 was a blur between my many meetings with oncologists, CT scans, blood work, brain MRI’s, X-rays, a PET scan, etc. My life was turned upside down. My first surgery was scheduled for October 1st of that year. Dr. Jeffrey Farma performed a wide excision to remove the cancerous tissue and to ensure it didn’t spread further. A sentinel lymph node biopsy would confirm whether it had spread to my lymph nodes. The surgery went well, and I returned home the same day. A couple of days later, I was experiencing pain and went to the emergency department at my local hospital. Although everything was fine at the incision site, the melanoma had spread to my lymph nodes. This required an additional surgery called a lymph node dissection in which all the lymph nodes were removed from my left groin. At that point, I was diagnosed stage 3A melanoma.
After spending a couple of days in the hospital, I was discharged with stitches, two drains in my leg and I was in a lot of pain. I had a home health nurse come to my house every day for approximately three months during my recovery. Recovering from this second surgery was much more difficult than the first. I contracted an infection and was re-admitted to the hospital. I missed 12 weeks of work during this time. I also developed severe swelling, called lymphedema, in my left leg as a result of having my lymph nodes removed.
I was released to go back to work right after Christmas, however, my journey was far from over. My drug therapy, called immunotherapy, began in mid-January. Unfortunately, I experienced every side effect of the interferon. Three weeks into my therapy, I decided to stop the drug. I currently see my oncologists and dermatologist every six months and my primary care doctor every three months.
I’ve been fortunate to have no recurrence of melanoma but did have a basal cell carcinoma removed. I have become an advocate for melanoma research and for sun safety. With trips to Capitol Hill, I have told my story in hopes to help others. One of the blessings that have come out of this ordeal is meeting other melanoma warriors who have gone through similar journeys. Together, we hope to make a difference. I am back to work full-time and have even managed to run several 5K races. Our lives have changed in many ways and we are now a sun-smart family. We can be seen outside wearing hats, sunglasses, and sunblock and seeking shade at every opportunity. I am proud to say I am currently NED—no evidence of disease.