Father and Daughter: A Melanoma Story

Mar 19, 2024

Today, Leah Adams is an open book; sharing her story to help others learn from her and her Dad’s melanoma stories.

2019: The Beginning
In August of 2019, Leah’s Dad was diagnosed with Stage 0 melanoma. Leah’s mom had noticed a mole on his upper back that did not look right (scaly, scabby, oozing) and got him to get the first skin check of his life. He had never worn sunscreen, played golf and mowed the lawn shirtless. As an outpatient, the mole was removed, the margins were clear and he was good to go, with six-month skin checks required going forward.

Leah
Just a month later in September, Leah’s Mom noticed a mole on Leah’s chest that caused her concern. Leah did not use sunscreen, had a tanning bed membership, and loved how she looked being tan year-round in Cleveland, Ohio. Leah had never had a skin check and was apprehensive about having the mole checked out. Like her Dad, she had freckles and moles, and being young, felt invincible.

Before going to the doctor, Leah went down the ‘Google rathole’ and searched for moles that looked like the one on her chest. The information she gathered was unsettling, so she forced herself to get a skin check. She vividly remembers the skin check from the screening questions (do you have a family history of skin cancer? Yes; do you use tanning beds? Yes; do you use sunscreen? No; have you had sunburns? Yes). When asked if she had any particular concerns, she replied ‘no’; thinking if the mole was a concern, clearly they would notice it during the skin check. She remembers feeling annoyed and wasting her time at the skin check appointment. Certainly, she was not going to be told she had melanoma within weeks of her Dad?

The dermatologist did notice the mole and asked about it: How long have you had it? Has it changed shape or color? They did a biopsy and informed Leah she would get the results in 3-7 business days. Two weeks passed and there was no news, until the phone call.

Father and daughter melanoma story
The News
Leah was a passenger as her boyfriend was driving when the call came in. It was October of 2019. By the sound of the woman’s voice, Leah was certain it was not going to be good news. She was told she had melanoma, Stage 1A bordering on Stage 1B. Not only did she have melanoma like her Dad, but hers was worse. She was thankful to be in the company of her boyfriend when receiving the news as her parents (she is an only child) were away and she did not want to interrupt their vacation.

Leah was shocked, confused, mad, sad, and anxious. It would be several weeks before her surgery. The only surgery she has had other than having her wisdom teeth extracted. As a healthy young woman who loves to run, she felt her world was ending.

The surgery was significant and a lot to recover from. She had incisions on her chest where the mole was removed and incisions under her arm where they performed the sentinel lymph node biopsy to see if the melanoma had progressed to the lymph nodes and/or to other organs. Her first question after the surgery was how soon could she run? She was discouraged to here it would be several weeks to avoid risk of infection or tearing the stitches. Her world had rapidly changed and she was angry, mad, and embarrassed as she felt she had given herself cancer. She was trying to figure out what was next in her life as her common routines and outlets could no longer be a part of her world: no running for a while and no more tanning beds – ever.

In November she got the wonderful news that the cancer had not spread. She was happy and relieved and by the end of November was able to run again. She reached an important turning point: am I going to continue the pity party or turn it around and tell my story and help others? She chose the latter.

Wrapping Up 2019 with #Hope
Leah focused her energy on researching social media to see if other melanoma survivors had shared their stories. She was excited to see the connections to be made using #melanoma! She snapped a picture of her stitches and prepared to post her story as only a handful of people had known what she had gone through in the prior months. She had kept her journey very private and was concerned that people would judge her or make her feel badly. She gathered her courage and crafted a post about having melanoma and took a deep breath and posted. Her post was received with compassion, heartfelt support and love, and the biggest engagement she had seen from prior posts. This was her moment to realize the power of telling her story so others could take care of their skin, get skin checks, and adopt healthy skin habits.

Leah focused on turning her pain into purpose, using bronzers and self-tanning creams, wearing sunscreen and UPF protective clothing. She was actively researching organizations to get involved in and that is where her path with IMPACT Melanoma started. The physical, mental, and emotional challenges from the melanoma diagnosis and surgery were fading and things were looking up.

The Pandemic and Dad
In January of 2021, Leah’s Dad had a seizure while driving. Full body scans revealed lesions in his brain and his lungs. The diagnosis was metastatic melanoma Stage 4. The family was devastated.

The cancer was inoperable, so they used a variety of treatments to battle the melanoma including immunotherapy. Due to the pandemic, only one visitor was allowed as the pandemic shutdown was still in effect as vaccines became available. Leah and her mom juggled to be with him and care for him. The year was difficult as her dad was in and out of the hospital due to complications and effects of the melanoma treatments.

In 2022, her Dad was down to one single immunotherapy and had reacted very well to the treatments with scans showing reduction in lesions and others being stable. They were optimistic that he would complete the 24 treatments of which he was through 21. Unfortunately in December of 2022, the scans showed there was lung inflammation and further treatments were halted. The oncologist did not want to risk his dying from lung inflammation given the progress that had been achieved. His adrenal function was compromised as a side effect of the treatments. They accepted the doctor’s advice and ceased the treatments.

Father and daughter melanoma story
Today – Father and Daughter
Leah’s dad is driving again and holding his own. His lung and brain lesions are currently stable and while he manages post-treatment side effects, he is living at home with his wife with his daughter not far away.

Both Leah and her Dad are participating in a research study at Cleveland Clinic and are hopeful this furthers research and a cure. They both have been confirmed to have a gene mutation indicative of melanoma and other cancer risks.

While they have endured a great deal, being diagnosed with melanoma within months of each other, the journey has not been void of positive outcomes. Father and daughter are closer than they have ever been and Leah is committed to sharing her story to encourage others to get regular skin checks, be an advocate for you and your health, and to regularly use sunscreen, wear protective clothing, sunglasses, and a hat.

She looks ahead with hope as she and her fiancé plan to marry in 2025.

Follow Leah on Instagram at @theleahalexis

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