Sara McHugh shares hers cancer survivor story. She will speak on the young cancer survivor panel at the Women’s Health and Cancer Conference on October 7 at the Sheraton in Burlington. Click here to register.
I was just 23-years-old when I heard the words, “you have cancer.”
My life was just beginning. I had just finished my first year working as a nurse at the UVM Medical Center, after graduating from UVM in 2009. My sister Katie, who is also a nurse, and I were planning a trip to Europe and dreaming of all the fun places to which we could travel nurse. All my plans were put on hold when I was diagnosed with melanoma.
I noticed changes to a mole on my left thigh. I became concerned when it grew from its original odd shape, to a more raised, darker brown color and became itchy. I knew it needed to be checked out, so I made an appointment with a dermatologist. The dermatologist was suspicious that the mole was cancerous, so it was removed and sent for biopsy. The next day I got a call that the mole was positive for melanoma and I needed to see a surgical oncologist.
Two weeks later, I had a wide excision along with a sentinel node biopsy to remove the tissue around the melanoma and to check the closest lymph node to see if the cancer had spread.
“My cancer was now considered stage III.”
Two weeks after that, my surgeon called to tell me that the lymph node came back positive for cancer. This news was devastating to me. This meant my cancer was now considered stage III, I needed another surgery to remove the rest of the lymph nodes in my groin and it was recommended that I start a year of interferon treatment. The lymph node dissection was tough to recover from. I started going to physical therapy to help get my strength back and to help me deal with my new diagnosis of lymphedema. The interferon treatment was even tougher. I tried to go back to work full-time once I was on subcutaneous treatment, after the initial month of IV therapy, but the treatment was so draining I needed to go on both short and long-term disability. After feeling like I had the flu for 5 months, I decided to stop the interferon.
A couple months later, once I felt back to normal, I decided to pursue my dream of travel nursing. Katie and I landed in West Los Angeles, California for a three-month assignment. After the three months, I came back to Vermont, moved in with my now husband, Brian, and started working back at the UVM Medical Center.
Two years later, the same month Brian and I bought our house, I went in for a routine appointment with my doctor. He found, through ultrasound, a new growth of melanoma around the original mole site on my thigh. I went in for another wide excision and this time I made the decision to have 20 treatments of radiation therapy. Brian and I got married in June 2014, and we went to Italy for our honeymoon that September. In May 2015, at another routine appointment, my doctor found an enlarged lymph node by my left ovary, which meant another surgery to remove 8 lymph nodes, one being positive for melanoma.
My last PET scan this June gave me the best results any cancer survivor can ask for, “No evidence of disease.” This doesn’t mean the cancer will never come back, but between the recent advancements in immunotherapies to treat melanoma, the expertise of my surgeon and working with my oncologist and a naturopathic oncologist, I feel optimistic about my future.
Be aware of risk factors and changes to your body.
As a nurse and young cancer survivor, I always encourage people to be aware of their risk factors and to be aware of changes in their bodies. The most common types of cancer among young people (age 20-39) are: Lymphomas, Melanoma, Sarcoma, Breast, Cervical, Ovarian, Thyroid, Testicular, Colorectal cancer, Leukemia, Brain and spinal cord tumors. Oral cancers have become more prevalent in young adults related to the human papilloma virus (HPV).
It’s also important to know your family history of cancer. Get the recommended early screenings, such as pap smears, mammograms and colonoscopies. Know how to do self-exams, such as skin, breast and testicular, and perform them on a regular basis. Pay attention to your lifestyle and know that some of your behaviors can put you at higher risk for cancer, such as smoking, tanning and sexual activity. Be in tune with your body and notice unexplained changes such as new swelling or a lump, persistent pain, fatigue, abnormal bleeding or bruising, persistent fever or illness, frequent headaches or weight loss. If you are experiencing ongoing symptoms, don’t procrastinate, make an appointment with your doctor to get the appropriate testing.
“As young adults, we need to invest in our health.”
In my early 20s, I didn’t think I could get cancer, but the truth was I had multiple risk factors that predisposed me to getting melanoma. My great aunt passed away from melanoma when she was in her 30s, I have fair skin, light colored eyes, more than 50 moles on my body and have had multiple bad sunburns in my life. As young adults, we need to invest in our health. Early detection is key in surviving a cancer diagnosis. I am thankful every day that I went to the dermatologist when I did.
Sara McHugh, RN, is a resource nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center. She and her husband, Brian, who is also a nurse at the UVM Medical Center, live in Burlington. She will be speaking with the young cancer survivor panel at the Women’s Health and Cancer Conference on October 7 at the Sheraton in Burlington.