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#OutOfTheShadows: Eileen Walther

Guest blog post from Eileen Walther, a mucosal melanoma survivor and avid beekeeper: 

Early on, I knew I’d have choices to make. I get to pick how I want to live my life and I’ve always made a conscious choice to embrace joy and gratitude.

In 2017 I received my first cancer diagnosis; non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The diagnosis came as a result of a swollen gland on my neck, which caused bloodwork, scans and ultimately a biopsy. I went through six rounds of a chemotherapy combination known as R-CHOP and was declared cancer free in 2017.

To celebrate the good news, I planned a week-long road trip to visit with family members and friends. The real purpose of my road trip was to reconnect with the old me as I planned for my new normal and what gave me joy. Unfortunately, upon my return I started suffering from what I thought to be a bad sinus infection. I went to the emergency room once my eye started swelling up which we found out was due to a mass located in my sinus. I immediately had surgery, followed by a biopsy that showed I had mucosal melanoma.

At first it was scarier not knowing what was wrong with me than having a diagnosis. My lymphoma oncologist, Caron Jacobson, at Dana Farber was the one who broke the news to me about having mucosal melanoma. I trusted her with my whole being. She referred me to Dr. Elizabeth Buchbinder, a physician at the Center for Melanoma Oncology, also at Dana Farber. She made me promise not to go on the internet to search mucosal melanoma until after I saw Dr. Buchbinder. I kept that promise since I trusted her and she was right. On the following Monday, I met with Dr. Buchbinder and I was impressed by her compassion but also her laser focus on what needed to be done to battle this diagnosis. She explained that the best action plan was surgery to remove the tumor followed by radiation and immune therapy. We discussed the risk rewards of a single immune therapy vs a double. She also explained that the survival data that was out there was dated and it did not take into account immune therapy, which is a game changer. I again put my faith in my oncology team and it is faith well placed.

I needed a second surgery that sacrificed my eye, radiation and immunotherapy. Immunotherapy treated the tumor that was found in my sinus and addressed the cancer’s spread, since the melanoma was found to have metastasized. After this treatment plan, though, I have had no evidence of disease since November 2019.

Nature teaches us quite a bit and I have used that to learn how to deal with my cancer diagnosis. I am a beekeeper and a beehive works in a cohesive body all for the good of the hive, because that is what is important: the hive, not the individual bee. A guard bee will fight to her death defending the hive from an invader, the nurse bees will take care of the larva, the undertaker bees will remove the dead bees and the foragers will go out and collect nectar and pollen for the hive. I as a beekeeper (oncologist) will remove any sick or damaged parts of the hive (my body) or treat with chemicals (chemo or immune therapy) to save the hive. Using this model is how I have viewed my cancer journey. My body is the hive, and the members of my medical team are my beekeepers. They will treat it to try to ensure that the hive survives. It is the hive that is important not the individual parts.

I am blessed to have a glass half full instead of glass half empty mindset. I am also capable of compartmentalizing things that are happening to me and focusing on the task at hand. I set my focus on getting through the surgery, the radiation treatments and the immune therapy and getting to NED. I was, and still am, razor focused on that. As we all have setbacks, especially side effects from treatments, I view these as speed bumps and they can and have been dealt with. I’ve also been able to pivot my thought process so when negative things present themselves (metastases, colitis, etc.), I view them as a learning opportunity and ask myself what am I supposed to be learning from this challenge. Granted, the pivot happens after my pity party and I put on my big girl panties. A good big picture example for me is the cancer diagnoses have given me the opportunity to teach my adult daughters by example, how to deal with adversity when life does not seem fair and life is not always fair.

Despite everything that I have been through, I know that I am incredibly lucky. In addition to my amazing and loving family, I have found an active mucosal melanoma support group and know that I will always have the support of my incredible friends – the “sparkle girls.” And my role model in how to survive this cancer journey with joy was my dog, Max, a big shaggy labradoodle. When Max was a couple of years old, he survived testicular cancer. Then in 2019, Max was diagnosed with oral melanoma, aka mucosal melanoma. Max never let on that he was suffering. He lived life to the fullest his last half year of life; life is good if someone throws you a ball or rubs your belly. Every morning when he put his head on my shoulder to wake me up I’d look at him and say, “It’s a good morning we are on the green side of the grass”. Although he crossed the Rainbow Bridge at almost 14 years of age, he lived a good full life and I need to follow his example of living my life with joy. I don’t have control over the disease, but I do in how I deal with it and I choose joy.

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