Late in 2010, Chelsea Price’s boyfriend noticed that a mole on her upper back was scabbed and weeping. “It had always been there but he thought I should get it checked,” recalls Chelsea, who was then 23 years old. By the time her dermatology appointment rolled around, however, the mole had healed. “I almost cancelled,” she says.
Good thing she didn’t. At her follow-up appointment, her dermatologist casually said, “Hey, it’s melanoma.” Thinking he was kidding, Chelsea started laughing. When she realized he was serious, she was stunned.
Next came a barrage of other medical specialists. “My surgeon asked if he could pray for me,” Chelsea says. “I know this is Virginia, but still.” After surgery revealed melanoma in sentinel lymph nodes in her neck and arms, her oncologist recommended a year of interferon.
But Chelsea balked, knowing that interferon can cause depression and liver damage with little payoff. “It’s a horrible drug,” she says. “It’s so hard on people and has hardly any chance of working.”
Then she finally got some welcome medical advice: “My surgeon said, ‘If you were my daughter, I’d tell you to go somewhere else.”
So she did, choosing Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. But even there, the oncologist told her to just “watch and wait.” While this is standard advice for stage III melanoma, Chelsea wasn’t about to “do” that, either.
Instead, she had a Sloan Kettering surgeon ─ whom she calls Glinda the Good after the helpful witch in The Wizard of Oz ─ take out the rest of the lymph nodes that could have harbored melanoma. “I knew lymphedema would be rough but it was better than having cancer in my body,” she says. Lymphedema is the swelling and increased risk of infection that follows lymph node removal.
Luckily, the lymph nodes removed during her second round of surgery all tested negative, freeing Chelsea to enroll in what was then the only clinical trial for stage III melanoma. “You had to have zero evidence of the disease,” she says. Chelsea was one of the last nationwide to enroll in a phase III trial of ipilimumab, an immune system booster approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for melanomas that have metastasized (stage IV).
The catch was that people in phase III trials are randomly assigned to get either the drug that’s being tested or a placebo, and they will never find out which one they got. “It was hard at first that I could get the placebo but then I came to terms with it,” Chelsea says. “People have to go through clinical trials if we want to see progress. And I’m monitored so closely that we would catch anything right away.”
That was almost three years ago. Today, Chelsea is nearly done with the trial and remains melanoma-free. She’s returned to work in the radiology department of a VA hospital, and last fall she married her boyfriend who spotted her melanoma and together they are raising his young son. And now, after all those trips from Virginia to New York for the trial, Chelsea can’t wait to take a real vacation.
Catch up with Chelsea on her blog, Adventures with My Enemy Melanoma http://adventurewithmelanoma.blogspot.com/.