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Melanoma as a Medical Student

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During my first year of medical school, we spent a week learning about cancer-causing genetic mutations. Unfortunately, this topic was something I was already intimately familiar with. My family and I have a past medical history riddled with many types of cancer. At the heart of our genetic history lies a mutation in the CDKN2A gene, which normally functions as a tumor suppressor gene. Individuals with a defective CDKN2A have a significantly higher risk of cancer, especially melanomas and pancreatic cancers. In medical school, I was disappointed to learn that my family’s generational struggles were attributable to the simple deletion of a few amino acids.

Around the same time, I received a call from my dermatologist, Dr. H. It was 5 p.m. and Dr. H herself made the call. I held my breath until she broke the news: “Madison, we received the results of your most recent biopsy, which revealed that you have melanoma in situ in the left thigh.” This was my first cancer diagnosis. I tried my best to maintain my composure, listening to her plan to surgically remove the malignant cells, with generous margins of 5mm. I would have a very large incision on my leg. I called my mom first to tell her the news and she was devastated. We both knew what this meant for my future: I most likely possessed the CDKN2A gene like my father. Shortly after this call, I remember driving somewhere and that is where the tears came. I knew that my life would never be the same.

After that day, everything changed. In medical school, I realigned my mindset and goals to become a physician to help others like me. First, I had to take care of my health. I thought to myself: if I am not alive, I will not be able to become a physician to help others. My diagnosis became less of a burden and more of a motivator to excel in my future career. This larger calling gave me purpose and propelled me forward through my studies, during and after my surgery. While I was mostly couch-bound after my surgery, I dedicated my time on the couch to studying for my first set of medical school finals. Through hard work and determination, I was able to excel on these examinations.

After completing my final exams, I set out to obtain an official diagnosis of the CDKN2A mutation through the cancer genetics clinic my family follows with. Approximately six months later, I had my blood drawn and received a call from a genetic counselor with the formal diagnosis of the CDKN2A mutation. Meanwhile, Dr. H mandated frequent skin checks and biopsies of suspicious lesions.

Around this time, I became motivated to pursue research involving those impacted by the CDKN2A mutation. I obtained a position conducting pancreatic cancer research. Through my work, I saw the passion in every one of my colleagues and it inspired me. Performing this research provided me with invaluable research experience and a newfound hope to find better solutions for patients like me, like my father and grandfather.

Roughly a year later, after completing and passing my first set of medical board exams, I went for my latest skin check with Dr. H. At this visit, she biopsied a suspicious lesion on my right thigh. A few weeks later, I got the call. This time, I was at my research lab, obtaining some data. I stepped away from my work, pacing in the hallway, as Dr. H dropped the news: “It’s melanoma again. However, this time, it was stage 1 superficial spreading melanoma, <0.2 mm deep.” Sadly, Dr. H notified me that she was no longer comfortable removing a melanoma at this stage. Thus, I had to go to a melanoma center for this surgery. A month later, during the surgery, I told my surgeon about my passion for medicine and helping others impacted by my condition. She noted that she admired my strength and asked me if I wanted to watch the surgery in real time. As she operated, she explained each step to me. I loved it. One week after having the tumor removed, I started my clinical rotations. After this, I had even more motivation to care for others impacted by medical situations like mine.

Two months later, I attended a pancreatic cancer conference on a scholarship for students diagnosed with cancer. At this conference, I presented the research I conducted for the past year on pancreas cancer. Being at this conference, I was able to network and meet clinicians doing amazing things for their patients affected by such a deadly cancer. I plan to pursue a career caring for others impacted by cancer.

This post was written and submitted by a CURE reader. The article reflects the views the author and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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