Caitlin's reason to smile
9 May 2017
Caitlin had plenty to smile about: a close family, a boyfriend, and only one year left of university. Life was good.
But in 2015, she almost lost everything when she was diagnosed with Stage III melanoma.
Like many young people, Caitlin didn’t think she was at risk of life-threatening skin cancer.
That is why she didn’t panic when she noticed an odd-looking whitehead behind her left ear. It continued to get bigger.
Then it began to bleed. It went brown and then black. It was now so big, her friends noticed it. Caitlin began to feel self-conscious. She went to her local skin cancer clinic.
“The doctor said, ‘Oh it’s just a cyst or something. I got it removed that day. Three days later he called and said: ‘It’s much more serious’.”
Caitlin was referred to a surgical oncologist who explained Caitlin had a very aggressive cancer, nodular melanoma.
She would need a 2cm incision around the melanoma site to remove any remaining microscopic melanoma cells and a further operation to determine whether melanoma cells had spread to her lymph nodes. A painful skin graft from her upper thigh was used to heal the wounds from surgery.
After three weeks in recovery from her operation, Caitlin was very excited to remove the bandages covering her skin graft. But she made an alarming discovery: a lump near her scar.
She went straight back to her surgeon who performed a biopsy. The results were bad. She had Stage III melanoma. Her parents broke down in tears.
“That was when I began to get worried and really scared,” said Caitlin. “I didn’t realise melanoma could get into your lymph nodes and you could get tumours everywhere.”
Unfortunately, typical cancer treatments like radiotherapy are not always effective. Caitlin’s family was very worried.
But people like Caitlin are why MIA makes sure every patient with advanced melanoma gets the opportunity to take part in a clinical trial — so they have hope of a cure.
Her surgeon explained several promising treatment options to Caitlin and her family. They chose a ground-breaking study that offered great hope her tumour could be significantly shrunk to make easier to remove and prevent the cancer spreading.
Like 40 percent of people with advanced melanoma, Caitlin had tested positive for the BRAF gene. In some people, this gene mutates, signaling the body to grow abnormal cells: and this may have led to Caitlin’s melanoma. The study aimed to see if the BRAF gene could be ‘switched off’, to stop the production of her cancer cells.
Under the care of Conjoint Medical Director and Medical Oncologist Professor Georgina Long, and her expert staff, Caitlin and 34 other trial participants took the gene inhibitor drugs Dabrafenib and Trametinib for three months. Caitlin was closely monitored by Prof Long and her nurses and kept a daily diary to track her progress.
“By focusing on the science behind cancer, we can design further treatments that improve response and survival, and hopefully even cure some people,” says Prof Long.
Caitlin endured intense side-effects like fevers, nausea, exhaustion and aching muscles. The only thing that made it bearable was the incredible support she received.
“The nurses and doctors were so caring and so enthusiastic about the trial. You could just tell that they really cared about me,” she said. “My parents were so strong for me and came to every appointment.”
Each month, photos were taken of Caitlin’s tumour to measure its changes. It had protruded like a golf ball, but two months on, the tumour had shrunk massively. This was exciting for Caitlin’s family and her treatment team!
After three months, it was time for Caitlin’s important surgery to remove her tumour. But her surgeon had upsetting news.
When first diagnosed, her cancer was wrapped around a facial nerve. That meant there was still a risk removing the cancer would damage the nerve, making her face droopy forever.
She may never smile properly again.
For someone so young whose smile lit up a room, it's hard to imagine how it would have felt to receive more bad news like this. Caitlin was devastated.
But she didn’t need to be. During the operation to remove the tumour, Caitlin’s surgeon could see the drugs had worked so effectively it no longer enveloped her facial nerve. While Caitlin was left with a droopy mouth after surgery, this went away after a month.
Caitlin endured a further nine months of drug treatment following her surgery. At the end, she was declared cancer free.
Today Prof Long is monitoring Caitlin very closely, but she and her family are ecstatic.
They know, without MIA, things could have been very different. MIA is the only place in Australia that provides this innovative treatment for Stage III melanoma.
“I just feel so lucky that at that time they had a trial running for Stage III melanoma and I met the criteria,” says Caitlin. “Everyone was so passionate. This could be a potential cure. This research is so important.”
The heartbreaking fact is melanoma kills more people aged 20-39 than any other cancer, and their loved ones enormous pain and grief.
MIA is determined to change this by improving survival rates through laboratory research and innovative clinical trials.
Incredibly, in the past five years, the number of people still alive one year after a diagnosis of advanced melanoma has increased from 25% to 75%.
But we still have much more work to do before survival rates reach 100% — because no-one should lose their life to melanoma.
If we can raise $200,000 with the help of kind people like you, it will mean 10 people with advanced melanoma can take part in a clinical trial that could save their lives.
- Tragically one Australian dies every five hours from melanoma.
- Funding research and clinical trials like these are critical to ensure as many people survive as possible.
Together in the last 60 years, we’ve come so far in the fight against melanoma. Let’s increase survival rates to 100%. The sooner we get there. The more lives can be saved.