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My Mom's Battle With Cancer and How Immunotherapy Saved her Life

Wednesday was my moms last treatment for her cancer. It was a day filled with joy as she took the 2 hour drive to the clinic and rang the symbolic cancer free bell. I have been trying to think of the perfect time to write this blog for the past year as we experienced such highs and such low lows as we dealt with my mom's cancer diagnosis as a family. I decided now was finally the time.

(Some beautiful throwback photos of my mom)

Last March my mother and I planned a trip to Florida to warm our bones. She lives in Pennsylvania, and we thought, what better way to both get out of town and see each other than taking a trip south. I had already booked the flight when my mom called me and told me that she wasn't sure she would be able to travel as she had a doctors appointment to go check a lump that had been growing on her arm. She said she was sure it was nothing and that we would soon have our toes in the sand. Turns out it wasn't nothing. It was cancerous and she was going to have to have surgery to remove it. I called the airlines and changed my flight from Florida to fly home to chilly Pennsylvania. I wanted to be there to take my mom to her surgery.

I hopped on a plane and was greeted with snow and ice as I drove the tiny yellow Volkswagon beetle I rented from Philadelphia to Tunkhannock. We spent the week drinking wine and shopping and just being girls, catching up on time missed. My mom's surgery was pushed back and it ended up being scheduled for the day I was leaving, I was going to take her to the hospital where my sister would meet us there, before getting on a plane home. My mom was complaining of bad back pain so I was showing her some yoga stretches when the doctor called. The surgery would have to be postponed as they wanted her to come in for scans to see just how far the cancer had spread from her arm. I left for the airport and she said she would call as soon as she knew the results of the scans.

(photo from my trip home that March)

The day after I got home, Brandon and I had a trip planned with friends to drive to Phoenix for spring training. We packed the car up and hit the road. I was still waiting for my mom to call me with the results when I got a call from my sister Kim. To be honest my big sister and I had a small falling out and hadn't spoken for 6 months. I knew her calling me wasn't a good sign. I let it go to voicemail as I was in a vehicle with a group of people and I knew I couldn't hold it together. I missed 3 more calls from her and 3 from my sister Jaime. I texted them both that I would call them as soon as I got to our hotel. Brandon grabbed my hand as tears welled in my eyes as I did everything

I could to keep it together.

When we arrived at the hotel I called Kim back and got the worse possible news. The cancer had spread not only to her lymph nodes but to her back and chest. The pain she was experiencing in her back when I was showing her those stretches, was the cancer. She was given 6 months to live. You see this wasn't the first time my mom had been diagnosed with cancer. When I was 16 she had colon cancer and went through chemotherapy. She was so sick back then and went through such hell that Kim and I both agreed that her doing chemo again just wasn't something we wanted to see her go through. We wanted the last 6 months of her life to be full of joy, not full of sickness and being bed ridden. I wanted her to do things on her bucket list that she never thought she would be able to do. I really was worried about my little sister Jaime. Kim and I had husbands and families of our own to lean on but Jaime and my mom were attached at the hip, the news was really hitting her hard.

My mom had a extremely rare form of skin cancer called Merkel Cell Carcinoma. Her oncologist told her she should do chemo followed by immunotherapy treatments. She made an appointment in Allentown 2 hours away, to see a specialist in immunotherapy treatment. Once there, Dr. Nair told her chemotherapy would kill her. He suggested she just try the immunotherapy treatments. This would require her to make the trip to Allentown every 3 weeks. Dr Nair was one of the first doctors to use the brand KEYTRUDA. He had funding through them so my mother wouldn't have to pay the large medical bills that would result from this treatment. It was such a blessing.

A little more about KEYTRUDA: it is a type of immunotherapy that works by blocking the PD-1 pathways and helps to prevent cancer cells from hiding. It aids the immune system to do what it was meant to do: detect and fight cancer cells. Because cancer cells are the body’s own mutated cells, they are not always recognized by the immune system as invaders.

So her journey of trying KEYTRUDA began.

She would get treatment every three weeks and have CT scans done every 6 months to see if the cancer had spread. After a couple treatments, the color in my moms face returned. She had more energy and didn't feel as weak. So different than the way chemotherapy made her feel all those years ago! We were still so skeptical of how much more time this would give our mom but at least she wouldn't spend the last few months of her life sick and in bed. My little sister Jaime and I decided to plan a trip to Greece, where our grandpa was from, a huge item on my mom's bucket list. Kim and I also decided to surprise her for her 70th birthday with tickets to go see Bruno Mars. A little secret, my mom is the BIGGEST Bruno Mars fan. The concert was in September, 6 months from when we got the news that she was diagnosed with cancer.

Fast forward to September and my mom is feeling great. She is scheduled for her first scan to see if the cancer had spread. Its so crazy to think that if she had done chemotherapy or chose to do no treatment at all, she might not have made it to the 6 months to even have a scan done. Waiting for those scans to come in felt like I was waiting for an eternity. My stomach was in knots when the news came in.

The cancer had not spread or grown! WHAT?!?!? It felt like a miracle. The concert was now going to be a celebration, and no longer was a reason to get together to try and complete my mom's bucket list before cancer took her life.

We had the time of our lives. We drank, we danced, we sang along to every single lyric. If you asked my mom, she would probably tell you that the cancer was God's way of bringing her girls back together. She is just an optimistic person like that. :-)

Since the concert my mom has come out to visit New Mexico, gone to Florida and started teaching again. She is an amazing horsewoman and had to give up going to the barn and teaching her kids for quite some time. Her life finally felt back on track and we are still working on that trip to Greece! It will happen soon I know it.

6 more months passed and my mom went in for her next scan. We crossed our fingers that nothing has spread, maybe it had even shrunk.

The results came in and the cancer was gone. She was in remission and she would be finishing her last immunotherapy treatment. WHAT!!! She got to ring the cancer free bell and now can be called a cancer survivor. Not only did she survive cancer once, but twice. She was given the diagnosis for 6 months to live and she kicked its ass. Way to go mom.

my mom ringing the bell at her last treatment.

It was a year filled with so much stress and anxiety. Not knowing if this horrible disease was going to take our mom away from us and turn her into another statistic that effects just about every family. Thank you to all the doctors who helped my mom, and to my family members who drove her to her treatments for the entire year. I can't believe the outcome was such a positive one. But I am so graceous it was.



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