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kevin l: melanoma

What is your cancer immunotherapy story?

“If it weren’t for all the bad parts of cancer, everybody would really benefit from it.”

Kevin Lankes has been writing stories for as long as he can remember. His first story, written at age 5, was about giant mutant pizzas terrorizing the city. In 2011, at age 25, Kevin found himself at the center of an even scarier drama: stage 3 melanoma. The lesion started on his leg and had already spread to his lymph nodes by the time it was discovered.
Kevin was treated at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Cancer by John Kirkwood, M.D., who recommended that Kevin have surgery followed by an immunotherapy called interferon. Interferon boosts the body’s natural defense mechanism against cancer and has been shown to delay recurrence. During his treatment and recovery, Kevin decided to write his personal memoir, which he recently had published.
TheAnswertoCancer (TheA2C) spoke with Kevin about his experience with cancer and why he decided to write about it.

TheA2C: How did you find out that you had melanoma?
Kevin: I had this really funky mole on my leg that was elevated. It was hard as a rock and itchy. I thought it was a mosquito bite, but when I looked at it, I was like, "Oh God." It definitely looked out of the ordinary.

TheA2C: Do you have a history of cancer in your family?
Kevin: My grandfather died of melanoma when he was 36—that was in the 1960s, I believe—so my whole life, my mother had been very obsessive about taking care of my skin. She was always lathering me up with sunscreen at the beach, and I would squirm to get away. I knew to go get it checked out, because I grew up with that.
TheA2C: When did you hear the definitive diagnosis?
Kevin: I got my diagnosis over the phone in August 2011. It was a surreal moment. Right away, I went into business mode and started scheduling doctor appointments. Some people fall apart right away. I don't; I fall apart later. I avoided telling my family for a while, but we eventually talked about it, and my mother kind of hijacked things and got it all taken care of for me. She was like, "No, we're going here. These are the best people." That's how we found Dr. Kirkwood and my surgeon, Dr. Edington.
TheA2C: How did the surgery go?
Kevin: When they did the lymph node biopsy, they found a microscopic bit of cancer in my sentinel node. They had to do another procedure in my upper thigh, which is even more disconcerting because it's called a "groin dissection."  I'm like, "As long as my groin is still there..." They took out the rest of the lymph nodes in the area and they were all negative, so that was good. Dr. Kirkwood recommended that we do the immunotherapy interferon. He is the one who got interferon approved as a treatment for melanoma by the FDA.
TheA2C: What was your experience with interferon treatment like?
Kevin: Obviously, immunotherapy is a wonderful alternative to chemo. There are no long‑term side effects that are shown in the research. The only thing I was told I would experience is basically a year of feeling crappy. I went ahead and I did it, and I definitely felt crappy for an entire year.
TheA2C: What kind of side effects did you experience?
Kevin: So, in December of 2011, I started treatment. It was a very hard month. I went to the hospital Monday through Friday to get hooked up to the machine, start the IV, and sit in the chair with everybody in the treatment ward. I was staying with my great aunt in Pittsburgh, and I would come home to her place and sit at this desk in the guest bedroom and write despite having chills and fever. I'd stop for dinner, around 6:30 to 7:00. When I couldn't stay up any longer, I took anxiety meds and passed out. Then I woke up in the morning and I did it all again.
TheA2C: Did the treatment change over time?
Kevin: It got a little easier after that month. I did the interferon injections on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the rest of the year. It's a much lower dose than I got in the hospital, but it still affected me a lot emotionally. They said interferon can cause depression, and it definitely did in my case. I was very sluggish, and I didn't want to do anything. I basically lay on the couch under a Snuggie for an entire year.
TheA2C: Did writing help you during this time?
Kevin: Writing for me was a wonderful outlet, and I resisted it for a really long time. It's like self‑therapy. I wrote my first story in first grade, so it's something I've been doing forever. I grew up in a very middle‑class, normal household, where my parents said, “You have to grow up and get a real job.” I never really considered writing as an actual source of income until later on in life. That's what I'm doing now, and it's my goal only to do that.
It's very rare that I'll sit down and be like, "I'm really excited to write this post about how terrible my life was at this point," but it really does help. As soon as you start writing, you get in the groove. The other day I started to write this new post, and I literally cried. But it's better than the alternative. You're getting out all of the emotions, all of the darkness, instead of keeping it in, and letting it build up, and letting it consume your life. I'm hoping that if a reader is going through something similar, they'll commiserate. Maybe it'll help them.
TheA2C: Has cancer changed your outlook on life?
Kevin: If it weren't for all the bad parts of cancer, everybody would really benefit from it. I hope I can use that perspective in the future— like not getting angry about things, letting things go, being able to realize what's important. Sometimes I find myself going back to my normal mode of operation, getting frustrated about commuting, etc., but then I remember, "Wait, you almost died once. What are you worried about?"
Kevin Lankes is a writer living in New York City. His memoir, entitled Metastatic Memories, was published in 2014. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinLankes and read his blog at http://www.lankeswords.com/.

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