In 2004, Katie Bunker was only four days away from turning 13 when her girlfriends told her she’d better get the nagging bug bite on her arm checked out. Katie’s parents agreed.
“It was like the size of the tip of my pinky,” Katie says of the swollen section on her left forearm. “It was opal pink in color and it had been there for forever.”
Katie’s parents took her to see her pediatrician who thought it was a wart, so he froze it. “That made it angry,” Katie says, “and it turned purple.” The pediatrician tried the treatment a second time, but it didn’t go away, so Katie’s parents took her to a dermatologist.
“The dermatologist had no idea what it was. She’d never seen anything like it,” Katie says. “But she took a biopsy of it and several hours later my parents got a phone call saying it was malignant. I had to go back for a second biopsy, and that’s when I found out it was actually stage III melanoma.”
A week later, Katie saw David R. Byrd, MD, UW professor of surgery and the co-director of the Melanoma Clinic at UW Medical Center. He removed four to five inches of skin from the forward portion of Katie’s forearm around the lesion. Dr. Byrd also removed a lymph node and found melanoma cells there, too.
During a time when Katie should have been worrying about what to wear to a concert and who would give her that all-important first kiss, Katie was facing a disease that could cut her life extremely short.
She had a third surgery and Dr. Byrd removed all of the lymph nodes from her left arm. “There were 30 in my armpit, but none had cancer fortunately,” Katie recalls.
A week later, Katie began receiving interferon treatment – and was possibly one of the youngest patients on this medication at the time. She received intravenous injections five times a week under the care of John A. Thompson, MD, a leading SCCA medical oncologist and the co-director of the Melanoma Clinic.
“Interferon works by boosting the immune system to fight melanoma, thereby preventing recurrence after surgery,” says Dr. Thompson.
Another immune booster, ipilimumab, was recently approved by the FDA for patients with melanoma. SCCA/UW doctors and patients participated in the clinical studies that led to the approval of both of these agents.
During her treatment phase, Katie actually was able to give herself injections instead of going to the clinic. “The first time it took me two hours to give myself that first shot!”
But it became routine for her eventually, and friends loved coming to spend the night with Katie on Tuesday and Thursday nights so they could watch her give herself the injections.
Katie received treatment for 10 months, until her parents and doctors decided that Katie would be better off not taking interferon any longer due to the side effects she was experiencing. Katie’s treatment ended one month earlier than planned.
Not entirely hairless, but exhausted, Katie says she was more depressed during her alone time than when she surrounded herself with friends, family, “and the SCCA staff,” she says.
“I definitely went through waves of depression shortly before my Make-A-Wish Foundation wish was granted, and again during my tenth month of self injections.” Katie preferred to show her more positive side on the outside than what she may have felt on the inside.
“I was so young, I never once thought ‘I can't do this,’” she says. “This was just something I needed to get through and overcome.”
As a student at Tolt Middle School in Carnation, Wash., Katie says that first month of treatment was especially difficult for her. “The side effects were so hard to deal with. I felt like I had weights on my legs.”
Katie was an athlete and soccer was her life. “Part of my depression stemmed from my inability to perform as well as I would have liked on the soccer field,” she says. Katie’s ability to play two sports (soccer and cross country) shocked her doctors and nurses at SCCA. It wasn't until a few months into treatment when her body could no longer handle doubling up in sports. She kept with soccer.
“Soccer was an outlet for me; something that distracted me from what was going on off the field, and if I would have discontinued soccer, I think I would have suffered much worse depression,” she says.
That’s when she got close to Debra Jarvis, a chaplain who worked at SCCA during the time Katie was a patient here. Debra is also a cancer survivor and the two hit it off from the start. They have become life-long friends.
“My friends say I’m goofy and fun, but during my diagnosis, I wasn’t myself. I just wanted to go back to normal and be a normal girl. Cancer was something 80 year-olds got,” Katie says. “I was embarrassed at how I looked. I became reclusive and shy. I wore oversized sweatshirts to hide in.”
During her treatment in middle school, Katie says she didn't achieve her regular academic quality that she usually focused so strongly on. “I've always worked very hard in school, though during treatment, I lost concentration and motivation easily since my medication gave me side effects of a three-martini lunch."
Katie got a fresh start when she entered high school, leaving middle school and cancer behind her.
“The exciting part about this was that my treatment was successful and I recovered so tremendously that I was able to return to my academic standards. I could focus again!” Katie says. “And I had time for extra curricular activities again.”
Katie was honored to be nominated and voted as Homecoming princess one year and then Homecoming queen her senior year, “something I will never forget,” she says. During her senior year, she was elected school president, as well.
A year after her diagnosis, Katie’s friends threw her a surprise party to celebrate her 14th birthday and the end of her treatment.
During that first cancer-free year, Katie went in once a month to see Dr. Thompson and his nurse, Jon Smith, RN. Then slowly she was able to reduce her visits to every six months after the third year.
Katie was featured in the magazine Seventeen. And at her five-year mark, she threw a huge party to celebrate.
In the years since her diagnosis, Katie has been co-chair of the Northwest Melanoma Symposium along with Dr. Byrd. This is an annual symposium presented by the Melanoma Research Foundation and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance for a full day of melanoma education for patients and the people who support them.
Blessings and gratitude
Katie is now pursuing a career in nursing.
“Cancer was a blessing in disguise. My family has always been very close. I do however believe that the trials we have been through together have strengthened us with an unimaginable bond.”
Katie feels her purpose in life stems from her eagerness to give back to others what she has been given. “Hope, inspiration, and compassion…. I would love to do medical missions or potentially serve in other countries as well,” she says.
“The treatment I received at SCCA and UW Medical Center was amazing. I was advocated for, respected, and absolutely uplifted. A nurse is a patient advocate; though every doctor and medical assistant I had, in addition to my nurses, truly cared for me and aided in my recovery. I am so fortunate to have been treated with such excellent care.”
Katie’s advice to others
“It’s all about sun exposure,” she says. “It’s so easy to just lotion up!”
Katie thinks it’s very strange that she got melanoma, especially so young. She has olive colored skin, dark hair, and green eyes. But her great uncle died of melanoma. So her entire family gets yearly dermatology skin checks now, just in case.