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Living with cancer - Martha Carr

I am a second-stage, Clark Level IV, and an in situ first-stage, survivor of melanoma, and I'm living with cancer. I want to get that out right up front because the idea of living with cancer doesn't regularly make the news, especially when talking about melanoma.

Melanoma is the fastest-growing cancer in America and is second only to leukemia in killing people of working age. You are equally as likely to get it if you're 20, or if you're like me and just turned 50 years old. It hits all age groups, including teenagers, equally. The main causes of this cancer are getting burned in the sun, tanning beds and family history.

While fair-skinned people have a greater risk, mostly from burning in the sun, having darker skin is not a guarantee. Bob Marley, who was from Jamaica and dark-skinned, died of melanoma at the age of 36. The small cancer that took his life was found on his toe.

Melanoma is found most often in women on the arms and legs, and in men on the trunk, but as Marley's case shows, the entire body needs to be checked. Getting an all-over body check that includes even the scalp, should become an annual routine visit to a qualified dermatologist for everyone.

My first cancer looked like a perfectly round, dark mole on the left side of my left knee. It was about the size of a dime, which was what got me to go have it checked. If I had waited just a few more months it may have cost me my life.

If you have a mole that's larger than the eraser on the end of a pencil, has changed color or size, has a halo of color around it or is cracked or bleeding, go to a doctor today and get it biopsied. Right now, catching melanoma early is the best chance anyone has of stopping the cancer from spreading.

However, for anyone who is facing melanoma and needs a few words of encouragement, there are also people out here in America who are confounding the doctors and beating the odds. I am happy to say I am one of them.

Dr. Jeffrey Wayne, my great oncologist at Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation here in Chicago, was as relieved and surprised as I was to find that the cancer on my leg did not show itself in my sentinel node, which acts as a kind of main filter to the rest of the body. Even better, recent tests at my six-month mark continued to show the same results. Just for today, I'm cancer free.

There are lots of others in the U.S. who are even at Stage three and Stage four and are still here, despite the predictions. They are all trying various medical treatments, including surgery and have lived beyond the expectations by years. No one can explain why, but sometimes, all you need to know, if you're a survivor like me, is that we exist.

More survivors write to me all the time to share their stories and offer words of encouragement or look for someone else to join in their continued prayers for recovery. The second cancer was found on my chin by my oncologist dermatologist and researcher at Northwestern, Dr. Pedram Gerami. He has the most remarkable way of talking about our expected lifelong friendship where we get reacquainted every three months for years to come. He told me on my first visit when the second, unrelated early-stage cancer was found, that he had a lot of patients just like me who had been seeing him for years.

More than any other words spoken to me during all of this, those gave me comfort, because Dr. Gerami always speaks to me about living with cancer and not about preventing my early death. It's a subtle thing but makes the difference. He joins me in believing for the best.

Recently, the New York Times published a series of articles on a new drug trial for PLX4032 at the University of Pennsylvania in the treatment of late-stage skin cancer. Melanoma has been remarkably resistant to previous drug trials showing little or no change in tumors or the speed at which they spread. This new drug has shown some mixed results, but the glimmers of success can shed light on what to try next.

The New York Times article ended on a sour note with the drug suddenly starting to fail and most of the people featured dying, leaving the impression that for most of us that's what awaits, and soon. However, there are survivors, like me, who have gone back to living and we're here, if you need someone to talk to. Go get checked -- everyone.

If you'd like to donate to melanoma research at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and help find a cure, go to www.LiveYourBigAdventure.com.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.