“Throughout my cancer journey, I never really let cancer stop me from doing the things that I liked to do and Dr. Agarwala always made sure that I maintained a good quality of life along the way - it was important to him and to me,” says Veronica.
Based on age alone, Veronica, 77, of Effort, Pa., was at a heightened risk for skin cancer; with age comes more exposure to sun damage. She also checked off almost every other box in the list of skin cancer risk factors. Fair skin - check. Light eyes - check. Eastern European descent - check. Always burned, never tanned - check. Major sunburns under the age of 18 - many times check. So when a mole on her back started bothering her, she knew it could be serious. She was right. “Some people think skin cancer should be easy to remove and treat...like it’s not that big of a deal,” says Veronica. “But when it spreads to your liver, lung and brain like it did for me, it’s very serious and even life-threatening.”
Veronica was working as a seasonal worker for a mail order greeting card company when she was diagnosed with melanoma at age 73. “It started as what looked like a wart on my back, but it kept getting worse,” explains Veronica. “I was busy working, so I thought I could wait a few weeks to get it checked, but then I started to realize that this could possibly be skin cancer.”
For people in Veronica’s generation, sunscreen was never much of a priority. She recalls having major sunburns and sun poisoning more than once in early life. By her 30s, she tried to stay out of the sun, but never wore sunscreen. She got her moles checked occasionally and had one removed, but there was never an indication of anything more serious until her 70s.
“Right after work one day, I decided that I had put it off long enough and needed to get the growth on my back checked out,” recalls Veronica. “I went to the emergency room where a surgeon was brought in and recommended I see Dr. Agarwala right away.”
Internationally-recognized melanoma expert, Sanjiv Agarwala, MD, Chief of Medical Oncology & Hematology for St. Luke’s Cancer Center, diagnosed her with malignant melanoma stage IIIC, which metastasized to her liver and lung. “Right after my diagnosis, I couldn’t bring myself to say the word ‘cancer’ so I kept referring to myself as ‘sick,’” explains Veronica. “But Dr. Agarwala got me to stop using the word ‘sick’ in order to change my mindset. He told me I had a condition that we were going to treat and fight - something changed in how I thought about my situation from that point on; I was ready for the next steps.”
“Melanoma is relatively rare, accounting for less than five percent of all skin cancers, but causes more deaths than any other skin cancer,” explains Dr. Agarwala. “It’s very aggressive and tends to grow and spread fast, which is what happened in Veronica’s case.”
The treatment plan started with four infusions at three-week intervals. After a few setbacks, Dr. Agarwala and his team decided to reroute and take another approach, which worked. Dr. Agarwala reassured Veronica that every cancer is unique and getting a personalized treatment plan is vital. Because she trusted her expert team, which included Lee Riley, MD, surgical oncologist, Hugh Moulding, MD, neurosurgeon, and physician assistant, Amy Schippers, PA-C, Veronica trusted their guidance. She battled for three years and as of last year, her disease has stabilized. Veronica has stopped all medication and now goes for regular scans to monitor for changes.
“Some people told me to get a second opinion in the beginning, but I never did,” remembers Veronica. “I didn’t feel I had too; I had complete faith and confidence in Dr. Agarwala right from the beginning. I was always very comfortable talking to him, always at ease, always trusted him and my other doctors, especially Dr. Riley, Dr. Moulding and Amy.”
Veronica is feeling much better now and enjoys spending time with her husband of 56 years, their six children, seven grandchildren and one great grandchild. “Throughout my cancer journey, I never really let cancer stop me from doing the things that I liked to do and Dr. Agarwala always made sure that I maintained a good quality of life along the way - it was important to him and to me,” says Veronica. “I feel good these days and very blessed to have had and continue to have the healing support of my family and my doctors and nurses at St. Luke’s to keep me healthy.”