Melanoma Patient: Be Alert To Cancer Symptoms
“Even the smallest, seemingly unrelated symptom could be a sign of cancer. You need to know your body and be persistent about having symptoms tested, so you can catch cancer early,” says 36-year-old real estate professional Claire Hodgson, who is currently being treated for metastatic melanoma and has had over 44 tumors removed over the past six months.
Journey with melanoma
KwaZulu-Natal resident Hodgson, was diagnosed with melanoma in 2018, after experiencing a series of ‘niggling’ and seemingly minor health complaints for several months. “I was eating clean, getting a lot of exercise, and having all the necessary health checks, but I started getting terribly tired. I wanted to go to bed by seven or eight at night. Then I got ‘flu-like symptoms, aches and pains and swollen glands. I know my body, and I knew something was very wrong. I kept going back to the GP, who ran blood tests, but the results were normal. He suspected tick bite fever, glandular fever, or stress. When a lump appeared in my groin, and then caused bruising under the skin, I asked a chiropractor friend about it, and he immediately ordered a scan. It turned out I had multiple tumors around my body,” says Hodgson.
The tumors, caused by skin cancer which had metastasized, had spread throughout her body into her brain, colon, liver and lymph glands. Over a period of several months, Hodgson underwent at least five major operations and had numerous subcutaneous tumors removed in the surgeon’s rooms. “These little tumors started popping up like popcorn all over my body,” says Hodgson.
With the support of her partner and her two brothers, Hodgson won a lengthy battle with her medical aid to secure the necessary immunotherapy and raised money for her to consult melanoma experts in Israel. Her health declined rapidly, and Hodgson was admitted to hospital. “I had lost 13kg and I could barely walk. I developed ascites because of the tumors on my liver and had to have my abdomen drained repeatedly – I had 11 liters of blood drained and I had to have 12 transfusions. I also had a seizure because of the tumors in my brain. By November, the doctors said there was nothing more they could do and my family started flying in from all over to see me. I knew I was going downhill fast and I went into a very dark place,” says Hodgson.
Melanoma diagnosis and treatment
But a turning point came for her when members of her church stopped to pray for her, and minutes later her partner and brothers rushed in with news from the doctors in Israel. “They said my pathology test had been incorrectly diagnosed and I was in fact BRAF positive and not BRAF negative as per my initial diagnosis. The treatment I had been on was in fact causing my cancer to spread faster. This news was a game changer,” says Hodgson. In consultation with the experts in Israel, Hodgson’s oncologist started her on a new treatment, and within a week, improvements were apparent. “I had the strength to start walking again, tumors all over my body started ‘melting away’.” Over the next two months, her liver function returned to almost normal, several tumors – including two in her brain – began shrinking, and Hodgson was well enough to be sent home. While her treatment is continuing, she is hopeful of further improvement.
“I must admit I was very anxious with the latest PET scan and MRI, but overall, I have had so much good news. Now that there is a treatment plan I feel a lot more at ease with what’s happening,” says Hodgson.
Hodgson has opted to stay optimistic and keep fighting cancer with the support of her family and friends. “I consider myself lucky that I was diagnosed at a time when treatment has come so far. There are always options – and you must be strong and determined enough to look at all the options that are available to you. It’s a lot about your mindset – you simply can’t give up. Family and friends are also so important – this is the time you need everyone around you,” says Hodgson.
Hodgson says support groups and information are also important resources for people coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis. “Most importantly, people need to know their bodies and be conscious of the risk of cancer. If you discover any worrying symptoms and you know something is wrong, don’t put off consulting your doctor,” says Hodgson.
Skin cancer prevalence
Dr Gary Sopher, Medical Director of Oncology at Novartis South Africa, notes that the incidence of skin cancer, one of the most common forms of cancer, is increasing worldwide: “According to the World Health Organization, between 2 and 3 million non-melanoma skin cancers and 132,000 melanoma skin cancers occur globally each year,” says Dr Sopher. As ozone levels are depleted, the atmosphere loses more and more of its protective filter function and more solar UV radiation reaches the Earth’s surface. It is estimated that a 10 per cent decrease in ozone levels will result in an additional 300,000 non-melanoma and 4,500 melanoma skin cancer cases (1)
The most dangerous aspect of melanoma is its ability, in later stages, to spread (or metastasize) to other parts of the body. The term metastatic melanoma, or Stage IV melanoma, is used when melanoma cells of any kind have spread through the lymph nodes to distant sites in the body and/or to the body’s organs. The liver, lungs, bones and brain are most often affected by these metastases (2).
Says Dr Sopher: “As with other cancers, metastases occur when the melanoma is not caught in the early stages, making early detection crucial.”
Cancer rates on the increase
Cancer is the generic term for a large group of diseases that can affect any part of the body. A defining feature of cancer is the rapid growth of abnormal cells that grow beyond their usual boundaries, and which can then invade adjoining parts of the body and spread to other organs (metastasizing).
Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reporting late that the global cancer burden is estimated to have risen to 18.1 million new cases and 9.6 million deaths in the past year (3). One in 5 men and one in 6 women worldwide develop cancer during their lifetime, and one in 8 men and one in 11 women die from the disease. Worldwide, the total number of people who are alive within 5 years of a cancer diagnosis, called the 5-year prevalence, is estimated to be 43.8 million.
“Curbing the burden of cancer rests heavily on avoiding risk factors and implementing existing evidence-based prevention strategies. The cancer burden can also be reduced through early detection of cancer and management of patients who develop cancer, as many cancers have a high chance of cure if diagnosed early and treated adequately” says Dr Sopher.
About The Author
Novartis is reimagining medicine to improve and extend people’s lives. As a leading global medicines company, they use innovative science and digital technologies to create transformative treatments in areas of great medical need. In their quest to find new medicines, they consistently rank among the world’s top companies investing in research and development. Novartis products reach nearly 1 billion people globally and they are finding innovative ways to expand access to their latest treatments.