Just Skin Cancer? Think Again. How Melanoma Can Spread to the Brain

“You just don’t know how to feel about it.”

Caitlin, who was featured in one of our earlier blog posts, was diagnosed with melanoma at 25 years old, and since then has encountered just how pervasive the cancer can be. Just a few weeks ago she received the news no one wants to hear; the cancer had spread to her brain.

When we last interviewed Caitlin, she was anxious but remained positive in being part of a medical trial for cancer immunotherapy Keytruda. Shortly after, she began to have persistent headaches, which she attributed to the drug. But, when the headaches turned into full blown migraines, she knew she had to seek medical help. (She later discovered the headaches were caused by the tumors, and in fact she had been receiving a placebo for the medical trial, not Keytruda.)

A call to her doctor revealed it was time for her recommended MRI. Miraculously, they found a small time opening for her to come in on a Saturday, instead of the more likely chance she would have had to wait over a week.It was pure luck she was fit in on such short notice, because on the night before her scheduled MRI, her headaches were as worse as ever. Saturday couldn’t come sooner.

She joked that after each MRI scan, she immediately would ask the doctor what the results revealed, even though it takes a considerable amount of time to come up with conclusive results. As soon as she brought up the question this time around, he immediately responded, “You’re going to the ER right now.”

The next couple of hours was a confused whirlwind of emotions and questions. A trip to the emergency room affirmed she had not one, but two brain tumors on the right side of her brain. Both were caused by melanoma.

What makes this cancer so scary is melanoma’s way of spreading, at an alarming rate, to major organs such as lungs, liver, or brain. Its way of invading the body, without warning, causes enormous health scares. Caitlin explains, “that’s the scariest thing about melanoma. It goes wherever it wants to.”

Her melanoma jumped from stage 3 malignant melanoma to stage 4. Surgery was inevitable. Yet somehow, luck favored her again. What was thought to be over a week waiting in the hospital for a brain surgeon to perform the invasive procedure turned out to be a few short days; the same surgeon changed around his whole schedule in order to accommodate this priority surgery. She noticed these small miracles as positive indicators. “All I could think about was how good God has been to me because I almost wasn’t able to see the doctor for an MRI until the following Wednesday. I could have had major problems with the brain tumors. I am just really thankful.”

Recovery from brain surgery, as one can imagine, is a long process that involves constant support from family and friends. Suddenly, stresses such as finding a babysitter for her children, even finding someone to care for her, became a reality. Life suddenly becomes postponed. Even though she is on mandated rest, seeing doctors 2-3 times a week is exhausting. “It’s just one thing or another you’re just trying to get through. But I guess that’s just part of the journey. I just need to get through the recovery to get better.” The most interesting aspect was Caitlin’s ability, despite her troubles and health scares, in always making sure her family and those around her were taken care of before her. When deciding on a medication, her first reaction was to consider side effects in terms of how it was going to impact her daughters and their lifestyle. If that doesn’t indicate what sort of person she is, it’s hard to imagine what does.

She reflects back on the beginning of her melanoma journey, when her mole was first initially removed on her wrist. She emphasizes how ignorant she was to believe that the cancer could just be “cut off” her wrist, and her daily life could continue without stress. But “here I am now, having brain surgery and have stage 4 cancer.” It’s a reality that was impossible for her to image years prior.

So, it comes as no surprise she finds it heartbreaking when she logs onto her Facebook and sees activity on her feed that promotes tanning. “I just want to say ‘Can’t you see what I’m going through? How can you still do that? Please open your eyes.'” Her story confirms that this horrible cancer is never “just skin cancer.”

Yet, she holds this warrior attitude in fighting melanoma, and in my opinion, transformed into a role model for the melanoma community. Her biggest source of strength has been God and her family. And despite health setbacks, she remains unceasingly positive. While most would attribute the “Why Me?” mentality, what was her response?

“Things have worked out just right.”

1 Response

  1. Beth Doucet

    Your story is amazing! Thank you for trying to help people learn the dangers of tanning. But in reality they always think it will never happen to them.
    May God be with you and your family.

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