Julie Stark was in her mid thirties when she noticed a growth on her lower left leg. It looked like a mole, but it was pink, and she’d never seen it before.
“I wasn’t worried,” Julie says. The mole didn’t bother her, so she didn’t think anything of it until one day, a couple of years later, she bumped it and it bled. That’s when she went to visit her dermatologist. “My dermatologist wasn’t worried about it. It was small, about the size of a pencil eraser and raised.”
Her dermatologist removed the mole and sent it to the lab. “The only symptom was that it had changed,” Julie says. “It wasn’t too scary or weird.”
Four days later, in the spring of 2007, Julie learned that her mole was melanoma. She was 39 years old. Her dermatologist referred her to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
“Two weeks later I was in surgery and the surgeon removed one lymph node,” Julie says. “Still, I wasn’t worried or stressed.”
Julie had check-ups every three months and in January 2009, she saw two pink dots next to her surgical scar. Her dermatologist sampled them and the results revealed her melanoma was back.
Julie had a PET Scan (positron emission tomography) to check to make sure cancer wasn’t present in other places in her body. A spot was detected on her right lung and in February 2009, Dr. Douglas Wood, professor of surgery at University of Washington Medical Center, removed that spot, which turned out not to be cancer, but a lymph node.
Dr. David Byrd, professor of surgery at UW Medicine and co-director of the Melanoma Clinic at SCCA, performed a second surgery on Julie’s leg with bigger margins and more lymph nodes, which were all clear.
“I’ve felt all along that this was just part of life. It brought our family closer together and closer to God,” Julie says. “It took us to a better place.”
Medical Oncology Post Surgery
Dr. Byrd referred Julie to Dr. Kim Margolin, medical oncologist and co-director of the Melanoma Clinic. “She’s the first doctor that I felt like put options in my hands. She didn’t dictate. She let me decide. I liked that. It was empowering. I felt in control,” Julie says.
Julie had done considerable research on the web on what her next steps should be. She wanted more than just the watch and see approach. Her husband worried about Julie though and what would happen next.
Dr. Margolin presented Julie with two options, watch it and have check-ups every three months, or begin treatment with interferon, a naturally occurring substance in the human body that is produced in reaction to infection or disease. The manufactured interferon is thought to help boost the body’s immune system to fight disease, like cancer.
Julie decided to start interferon treatment in May 2009, which she took every day intravenously at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. “Although I didn’t last the whole month,” Julie says. “My liver went sideways.”
Julie experienced fatigue, fevers and chills, nausea, and constipation from the medications, yet she persisted on the treatment, which was reduced to three days a week, in shot-form that she gave to herself at home.
“You can’t do very much during treatment,” Julie says. “You’re just sort of done. The kids learned to do things they didn’t know how to do… they did what was needed to be done.”
Julie had lots of help from her husband, family, and friends. By the end of January though, she was finished. She’d hoped to take the treatment for a year, until April, but her heart had begun to race and her body told her she was done. “Dr. Margolin was happy with how long I lasted in the treatment,” Julie says.
Julie is grateful to her care team at SCCA. “I can’t say enough about how great everyone was at SCCA. From the nurses that were with both Dr. Byrd and Dr. Margolin, to the nurses in the infusion area, the lab gurus that drew tons of blood from me, to John who taught me how to give myself a shot, and of course, I love my docs,” she says.
Though she couldn’t believe how much better she felt after she finished the treatment. She hopes that it did what it was intended to do and that her melanoma will remain in remission.
“It’s very interesting to look at how research changes in a few years,” Julie says. “My cancer had a high mitotic rate in 2007, but back then, they weren’t even really looking at that.”
Julie will be monitored a few times a year and continue on with her life, raising her kids and running her design business with her mother and sister-in-law as well as her body shop business with her husband.
“You have a lot of feelings about letting people down when you have cancer,” Julie says. “I want to make people feel good.”