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Losing a Sister to Melanoma

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Our Oncology Research Nurse Coordinator shares the personal story of losing her sister to malignant melanoma. We highlight the importance of early detection and prevention during May, which is Melanoma and Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month.

Laura Heacock was seven years younger than her sister, Elena, but they were incredibly close.

"It was like we were twins," said Laura, RN, BSN, OCN, Oncology Nurse Coordinator for the Doylestown Health Cancer Institute.

Laura helps match patients to clinical trials that are conducted at the Doylestown Health Cancer Institute. Her personal experience with clinical trials dates back to her years in nursing school.

Elena's Story

Elena found a flesh-colored mole on her scalp that was diagnosed as melanoma when she was 39 years old. She underwent radical surgery to remove part of her scalp and lymph nodes. Elena did well and was monitored for three years before finding an enlarged lymph node in her belly. A CT scan showed the cancer had spread to her lungs.

Laura Heacock and sister, ElenaElena entered a clinical trial for melanoma at the University of Pennsylvania. She received injections of Interferon and a stem cell transplant, with Laura gladly donating her stem cells to Elena. The treatment kept the cancer at bay for more than a year before complications forced an end to participating in the trial.

Elena lived life to the fullest for one and a half years more before succumbing to the disease at age 44.

Laura describes her sister as an artist with a positive presence. "She just had a way of lighting up a room. You just loved being around her."

Laura recalls how Elena created small drawings with inspirational messages that she handed out to people wherever she went at the hospital and infusion center.

"She also gave out chocolate Kisses and lavender flowers to help make people feel better that day," said Laura. Elena Stem Cell Transplant

Her family's loss fueled Laura's passion for finding a cure for cancer and raising awareness of the disease's devastating effects. "You don't ever want to be in this situation," said Laura. "It is just heart wrenching to lose somebody."

More About Melanoma

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Most cases of melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer, are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun, and also from sunlamps and tanning booths.

Getting tan or sunburned today can affect your future health.

"People need to realize there are long-term consequences," said Laura, a former "sun buff" from the Seventies.

Skin cancer is highly preventable and curable if caught early. "It's important to be aware of your skin and take care of it," said Laura.

Prevention Guidelines

  • Seek the shade, especially between 10 am and 4 pm
  • Cover up with clothing, wear a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses
  • Use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. For outdoor activities, use a water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.
  • Apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours and after swimming or sweating.
  • Examine your skin head to toe every month
  • Report any changes or new growths to your doctor
  • See your physician every year for a professional skin exam.

Remember, it only takes 15 minutes for the sun's UV rays to damage unprotected skin. Yet it can take as long as 12 hours for skin to show the full effect of sun exposure.

Promising Clinical Trials

Laura has worked in the Cancer Institute for 11 years. Her role in clinical trials is like a gatekeeper, matching patients to trials, coordinating their treatment, tests and follow-up. "I become their extra nurse who watches over their care."

The Cancer Institute is currently involved in a clinical trial for metastatic melanoma treatment. "Of the two patients in the study, one has been cancer free for four years," Laura said.

The clinical trial Elena was part of years ago did not cure her, but did give her more time. Laura sees hope for the future in today's trials.

"Now we're seeing a lot of promise. By being in a clinical trial now, you are helping future generations."

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