• Cancer Patient Stories

    Mayo Clinic made it possible for my grandchild to have a grandmother

Where do I start in my cancer journey?? I guess at the beginning!!

It all started with a “bump” on the inside of my ankle that I ignored because it was the same color as my skin and didn’t hurt. But as weeks went by, it started to grow. I still didn’t think much of it until I went for my physical at Mayo Clinic. I talked to Dr. Paru David, and pointed out this “bump” to her and told her how long it had been there and how it wasn’t bothering me.

First Dr. David sent me to have an x-ray done to see what it might be, and then she called the dermatologist, Dr. Susanne Connelly, to set up an appointment for me. I continued on my way, with no worries and got my tests done as were ordered. Dr. Connelly was so nice, attentive and concerned. She took a biopsy and told me it would be back in 48 hours or less. I went home and continued my life, still not worried.

But then, one day later, I got the call from Dr. Connelly. She told me as gently as she could that she needed to see me as soon as possible. When I went to see her that same day with a friend, she gave me the bad news as calmly and gently as that sort of news can be delivered. I had melanoma!! I just sat there and stared in space. I could not speak and didn’t know what to ask. She immediately got on the phone to the Hematology/Oncology Department and set up an appointment for me that day to see an oncologist. Before I went to that appointment, she did an exam on me to see if she could find the original site that the cancer came from. She looked on my scalp, between my toes and even had me remove my acrylic nails to see if there was anything on my nail beds.

I was in shock, I had never been ill a day in my life and now I had CANCER!!! I went to see the oncologist, and he took a thorough history and called Dr. Barbara Pockaj to see me the same day (she is a surgical oncologist). Dr. Pockaj explained what stage of cancer I had and that it needed to be removed immediately. She called the operating room and had me set up for surgery within 2 days.

My head was reeling. What was going on with me and my life? What about my husband and children -- what was I going to say to them? How could I be “fine” one day and set up for surgery to remove cancer in such a short amount of time? I had a trip planned to do a lecture, and I inquired if I could go do that and was told by Dr. Pockaj that this was serious and needed to be done right away. OK, that was one thing I could take off my list, now what about the rest of my life. Work, school, husband, children. My life was OUT OF CONTROL!

I went to surgery bright and early on Monday at Mayo Clinic. Dr. Pockaj was waiting for me and explained the entire surgery and what to expect. Her kindness and honesty touched me so much. I knew that I was in good hands, and she was the best surgeon for me. So the saga began.

I was sent to my hospital room telling jokes because of the medication I was under. My family was happy to see that I was in good spirits and that Dr. Pockaj had taken such good care of me. I could blog on and on about my story because it continued on and on for the next six years. After I healed from the first surgery, the oncologist put me on IV medication for the cancer, and it still came back within a month. I was devastated, how could this be true. Again, I was in shock. Dr. Pockaj took me back to surgery. She told me to call or email her any time I had questions or I noticed anything new about my skin.

More IV medication, more healing, more waiting. The cancer stayed away for a year but came back again and again, year after year. My oncologist, Dr. Donald Northfelt, talked to me about options and what was out there for me. I went to see Dr. Pockaj again, and this time went thru a huge surgery. A flap was done on my leg so they could take as much tissue as possible to remove what cancer could be there. It took months and months for my leg to heal. I had a wonderful home care company that came to see me twice a day to change bandages. I was so scared that I was on the internet constantly and would email Dr. Pockaj research article after article. She finally told me I needed to stay away from the internet because I was scaring myself so much. She was right and as soon as I was able, I went back to work.

A year later it struck one more time, this time in my lymph node. I called Dr. Pockaj and told her I found a lump in my groin and didn’t know what it was. She had me come to her office that same day. I went thru a CAT scan and was scheduled for surgery the next day. She removed all the nodes in that area, and when I woke up from surgery, she told me again, that it was cancer. Why, how could this be, hadn’t I been thru enough? It wasn’t fair, I had a life, I had children to raise. Dr. Pockaj came to my hospital room and asked if I wanted a second opinion. I was so touched that she would sit at my bedside and ask that question. I told her that I appreciated that she asked me that question but I told her that I trusted her with my life, and knew she was the best surgeon and was doing all she could for me

I went to see Dr. Pockaj a week later to have a drain removed. She told me she was going to a big oncology conference and would have more information for me when she got back. A few weeks went by and when she came back from the conference I had an appointment to see her. When I got into the office, I was very excited to see her because she had become part of my life, and I wanted to see what she learned at the oncology conference. I noticed that she had some difficulty looking at me, and I made it easier for her. I said, “there isn’t anything new out there for me, is there?” She said, “no,” and we just sat there for awhile. How could this possibly be true, there has to be something, this cannot be the end for me.

She told me not to give up hope. She was going to do some literature review and call her colleagues and see what she could find out. Within days of the appointment, she called to tell me she found a research study for me at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. She had been a Fellow at NIH and worked under a physician there. She called him and found a research study for me. We discussed this with Dr. Northfelt and my family and went for it. Dr. Pockaj and her office could not have been more cooperative to getting me into that study. All the paperwork, CAT scans, PET scans, records, DVDs with my information had to be sent, one hoop after the other. Then they wanted the tumor to be sent so they could look at it and sure enough it was Fed Ex’ed out from Mayo Clinic that same day.

Long story short, I went thru the research study and was done with the study one year later. I have been cancer free now for three years. If it had not been for my great doctors at Mayo Clinic and the dedication to excellent patient care, I would not be here today. I still see Dr. Northfelt for my check ups, and I email both of them to let them know how I am doing and to tell them, if it had not been for them, I would not be alive. That all the hard work and very long hours they spent with me was so I could live to see my first grandchild, who was born in June of this year. I sent them pictures of her and told them they made it possible for my grandchild to have a grandmother.

This article was submitted by Vicki from Phoenix, a patient at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

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