Kelly O’Donnell Ware: Melanoma Survivor
In 1991 I found an abnormal lesion on my right calf. I had it surgically removed and got the result that it was melanoma. I had heard of melanoma but did not know much about it. Since I was in my early 20’s at the time, I followed the doctor’s instructions and never thought much more about it. I went to the oncologist for follow-up visits but gradually stopped going. I figured my melanoma was a thing of the past and never thought too much more about it other than avoiding sun exposure and tanning beds.
In July 2008, I felt a lump in my groin. After outpatient surgery, I was told that it was cancer, metastatic melanoma. My life changed forever that day. Within 24 hours I had a PET scan and an appointment scheduled with an oncologist. My PET scan came back showing activity in my right groin area, and I was advised to have a lymph node dissection followed by bio-immunotherapy. It was explained to me that there were not a lot of treatment options for melanoma. My oncologist told me that if new tumors were to arise while undergoing the therapy, it was a sign that the melanoma cells were resisting the treatment. The extensive surgery to remove the cluster of nodes was performed in August of 2008 where it was determined that several other lymph nodes were diseased.
After six weeks of recovery, I began a two-year clinical trial. At that time, it was the only treatment available for my level of disease. It consisted of 2 chemotherapy-type drugs (Leukine and Interleukin 2 [IL2]) that I self- injected every day. The IL2 made me violently ill causing vomiting, fainting, rigors, chills and sleepless nights.
Five months into the protocol, I again felt a lump in my groin. A biopsy and PET scan showed that it was a recurrence of the melanoma. That was not a good sign. I remembered the previous conversation with my oncologist about new tumors forming. I felt helpless and hopeless at that time. In March 2009, he again performed a major surgery to remove the tumor that had formed on my muscle which had been flipped into my groin/thigh area from my hip. He also went into my deep groin through my abdomen. Thankfully, the pathology report from that surgery came back as healthy other than the contained tumor that was removed from my muscle. That tumor was doused with high radiation and immediately frozen. They took my radiated tumor and turned it into a personalized vaccine for me. At the beginning of each cycle of treatment, I was injected with my own melanoma cell vaccine. The goal was to have my body recognize the melanoma cells as foreign and have my immune system fight off and kill any matching cells in my body. I have remained N.E.D. (No Evidence of Disease) since March 2009.
In 2009 Kelly’s Dream was formed. Kelly’s Dream focuses on easing the financial and emotional strain of cancer, raising melanoma awareness, and spreading the gift of hope. We assist an abundance of cancer patients and their families who are struggling through the hardship of cancer. We also have collaborations with Infusion Centers where we continually provide snacks, coffee and small gifts to patients and caregivers. We offer financial help directly through our general and specific assistance programs. Since its inception, the foundation has raised significant funds to assist cancer patients’ financial and practical needs.
Kelly’s Dream has a melanoma prevention and awareness program, Check & Protect, that has been well received throughout the community. We travel to area schools and organizations to share our personal journeys with melanoma and educate about how to protect oneself from the hazards of UV rays. Most recently we have successfully partnered with Stevenson University to have sunscreen dispensers installed in the athletic stadium for fans and players to protect themselves from the dangers. Along with state politicians, we are currently in discussion with other colleges and universities about having dispensers installed on their campuses. We are excited about the upcoming commitments and interest in our sunscreen dispenser initiative.
I always say that things happen for a reason. I feel blessed to have been chosen to live this journey. I wake up every day with a feeling of purpose and a continued drive to help more patients as they embark on their journey to wellness.