Education, prevention and support for the most serious form of skin cancer.

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Karen Irons

Karen Irons

My name is Karen Irons I am 46, live with my husband Stephen and have 3 kids. I live in Rhode Island on the water. We have a boat and spend countless hours living outside. Yes in the sun. When I grew up my family had a summer home at the beach. So I spent weekend after weekend at the beach. I remember that the sun block we used showed a dog biting down a bathing suit of a girl exposing a tan. That was what it was all about. I have Irish and Scottish genes so you know that every summer started with a bad sunburn you had to endure so that you could begin the tanning process. Lying in the sun day after day was what I did.

It was like a drug that made me feel good. So the stage was set. I was absolutely the perfect candidate for skin cancer. I have been an EMT-Paramedic for 26 years so I did have some medical knowledge. I knew that cancer was out there. I saw many patients dealing with the mortality of cancer. I quit smoking because I did not want lung cancer that was what killed my grandfather and uncle. With all this knowledge I was still ignorant about what I was doing to my body day after day.

So on January 2 of 2006 I went to the doctor’s office for a lump I noticed in my right armpit. That day spiraled my world into a new dimension…. Within moments the mammogram, X-rays, blood work, ultrasound, and surgery began. Everyone but me seemed to get the fact that this lump was a problem. Talk about being blindsided. I went alone to the doctor’s office to get my pathology report. I expected them to say it was a fatty tumor just go on a diet and take off some weight. So when the surgeon came into the office with my pathology report and stated metastatic melanoma stage 3b I was so puzzled. The cancer was in my lymph node. I didn’t get it. Skin cancer…..What is he talking about? I did not have any moles. Tears came out of no where. He began chatting about oncologists, and more enlarged lymph nodes and more Surgery and dermatologist and how it is an unpredictable cancer and if it was him he would go to Dana Farber. That the cancer could have spread to other parts of my body. Blah, Blah, Blah. I just sat there and cried.

So by March 1, I have a Dana Farber medical card. Sitting in that waiting room staring at my new card drove in the reality of my situation. I have cancer, I have an oncologist. I am a patient. So the doctors at the Dana Farber are great: Dr. Hodi, (oncologist) Dr. Russell (Surgeon), and my hero, Dr. Danielle Miller (Dermatologist). Seems that my mole was rare, it was amelanotic. (with out color) that is why 7 doctors could not find the primary cancer site. But Dr. Miller spotted it… 2 surgeries and a six inch ugly scar on my upper arm and the primary sight is gone. The good news is that the cancer never spread past my lymph nodes. Now those were some scary moments waiting for those results. Moments that I now get to relive every 6 months or so.

My cancer was at high risk for returning so the surgery of choice was radical axillary lymphendectomy. In other words let’s get every single lymph node out of the armpit and breast area. Also we need to remove some muscle and nerve that another 3 cm tumor had attached itself to. Recovery from surgery goes well. Family and friends rally around for support and help. It was during this recovery that I began to be able to really appreciate everything and everybody I had in my life. I never put much stock in living or dying I just accepted that I was alive. I knew now that I wanted to be a survivor and declared this a full blown war and my family and friends allowed me to be the general. They were my army… and they were good.

Now they introduce a year long treatment of interferon. OK so it is not this big cure all. I get that. But it just might help me… it is controversial at best. So many pros and cons. But I take the bait and endure a long miserable year of this terrible drug. God did I have side effects. But I lived through it.

I finished June of 2007. I left the Dana Farber that day feeling cancer free….for now. NOW WHAT?. As I am heading to my car I noticed the walls on the catwalk. They have a fundraiser for cancer research. All you have to do is ride a bike and raise money. They call it the Pan Mass Challenge (PMC) …I am so in. So I got a bike and began to ride. My first day out I rode 8 miles in an hour and was so tired. But I continued to train. My sister decided to ride with me. So in August 2008 we rode the PMC 85 miles from Wellesley, MA to Cape Cod. Yes in one day. We raised $10,000 for cancer research.

I have lifting limitations now, so I can no longer work as a paramedic. I do wear sun block daily and make a great effort to stay out of the sun. Wearing hats bothers me greatly. But I still boat with my highly tanned husband and friends. They are good at making sure that I stay covered up, like it could never happen to them. So I concentrate on teaching my kids sun safety.

With that life just goes on and only time will tell how I make out. But today I feel good, no great! So I feel that the next stage in my melanoma saga is to be an advocate for sun safety and attempt to educated others on the damage of tanning. That is why I turned to the Melanoma Foundation of New England.  I am a member of their Running for Cover Team for the Cox Providence Rhode Race.

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