It’s amazing how something so small can so drastically change a life. What appears to be a small freckle or a mole can be an indicator of life-threatening skin cancer.
Conquering melanoma isn’t easy, but with early diagnosis and cutting-edge treatment, the odds of winning are better than ever. Oncologist Laura Spranklin, DO, says the treatment of melanoma has drastically changed in just the past five years.
“The use of immunotherapy has really changed the landscape of melanoma treatment,” Dr. Spranklin says. “We are now seeing a long-term response in patients out years from their diagnosis who had stage IV disease. This is an amazing accomplishment.”
Still, the threat of melanoma isn’t something to be taken lightly. As the summer season ushers in swimsuits and sunshine, melanoma survivor Pam Bennecker hopes to help others avoid the kind of suffering she has experienced.
The Threat is Real
“I was a sun worshiper,” Bennecker says. “You hear about skin cancer, but I never thought it would happen to me.”
When Bennecker was a teenager, she and her friends wanted to have tanned skin at any cost. Like many young women in those days, Bennecker would mix baby oil with iodine and use it for a tanning accelerator. Sunny days were spent at the lake or the beach with little or no sun protection.
Then came tanning beds, thought to be safer than sunshine. “I would spend five days a week in the tanning bed,” Bennecker confesses.
With her fair skin, Bennecker feels like she should have known better than to spend so much time baking, but it’s too late to turn back, now.
About 10 years ago, a friend noticed a small, dark spot on Bennecker’s hand, and suggested a visit to the dermatologist might be in order. Bennecker took her friend’s advice, and discovered the dark spot was a malignant melanoma.
After a skin graft, she was told to schedule regular appointments with a dermatologist, and to keep an eye out for anything suspicious on her skin. Bennecker kept a close watch for new or changing freckles and moles, but she did it while she continued to tan.
Six years passed, and Bennecker found another spot. Again, it was diagnosed as a malignant melanoma, there was a skin graft and a warning to be careful. She was told to be vigilant about checking the lymph nodes under her arms. She returned to tanning.
A biopsy revealed malignant melanoma in Bennecker’s lymph nodes. Surgery was scheduled immediately so a tumor could be removed.
An Aggressive Cancer
“In the two-week time frame from when they gave me the diagnosis to when I had the surgery, the tumor had already grown from three centimeters to five centimeters,” Bennecker says. The tumor was aggressive and growing.
“I also had a PET scan to see if the skin cancer had spread to my internal organs,” Bennecker says. “When you have a PET scan you have to wait a week for the results, and it’s the most horrible week of your life.”
At a religious retreat during that waiting period, Bennecker cried and prayed and leaned on the unconditional love and support of her friends. Her friends shared their faith in God and their faith in her as she waited for the news.
The skin cancer hadn’t spread to her organs, but that didn’t mean the war was over. Not by a long shot.
Bennecker returned to her oncologist and a plan of treatment was developed. She made the choice to undergo treatment at Thompson Cancer Survival Center’s Sevierville location.
“They were awesome at Thompson,” Bennecker says. “I really feel like I got the same treatment here that I would have in Knoxville.”
Having an excellent medical team was important because fighting skin cancer is a brutal battle that calls for the most well-equipped soldiers. Bennecker attacked cancer with radiation and her first immune therapy treatment. The treatment hit back.
“It was a horrible experience,” Bennecker says. “The first immune therapy drug they had me on had horrible side effects,” Bennecker says. “I was so sick, and achy all over like I had the flu. They would give me a steroid IV just so I could stay hydrated.”
Her medication was changed in January, and Bennecker was grateful that now she only had to be sick a couple of days at a time. When you’re a skin cancer patient, the things you count as blessings are sometimes a surprise.
A Strong Survivor
Today Bennecker sits peacefully enjoying a cup of coffee and appears to represent a flawless portrait of grace, beauty and health. But spend a few minutes talking with her and you’ll know that cancer has changed her life forever, and not just because of what she’s had to endure in the past year.
“They had to remove my lymph nodes, so now I have lymphedema,” Bennecker says. “I have to get my arm worked on because it swells.”
Bennecker isn’t bitter. Far from it. When she thinks about the fact that she might have been robbed of the chance to see her grandchildren grow or miss enjoying years with her husband, it’s hard for her to keep from crying.
She intends to embrace every season and cherish every friendship. Bennecker’s faith is strong, and so is her motivation.
“I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me,” Bennecker says, “and I’m not going to sit down and feel sorry for myself. I just want people to be aware of what the sun can do to our skin.”
After skin grafts for two malignant melanomas and surgery for a third, Bennecker has learned a hard lesson about tanning. “I will never, ever do it again,” she says.
“I love life, and I’m doing great,” Bennecker says. “I really am.”
To learn more about cancer screening and treatment, visit LeConte’s Cancer Services page.