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Maureen Reagan - Melanoma Cancer Survivor

by Maureen Reagan - daughter of former president Ronald Reagan and melanoma survivor

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, May/June 2000.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

I had just moved to Sacramento when I first became concerned about a mole on the back of my thigh. It wasn't until we moved into our current house that we had enough mirrors around that I began to see something. It just looked like a spot. However, I soon learned from a dermatologist that I had a Breslow Level 4 Malignant Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, and was referred to an oncologist.

Fortunately, all my tests came back negative; the melanoma had not spread. At that point I was told that I needed more than just surgery; I needed adjuvant therapy with interferon (Intron© A). My oncologist's explanation was "Interferon itself is manufactured by the human body as part of your immune system. So what we're going to do is goose your immune system. Hopefully, it will fight off and kill any errant cells that may have escaped our notice. Since melanoma is known to return even after 20 years, a year of interferon therapy was my best option.

My year of treatment was a challenge. I experienced just about every possible side effect. I felt tired and weak. I was in a constant state of chills, fever and sweats. I found that I did not have many productive hours in the day. Despite all of this, I stuck with it. I knew that it was my best chance at survival. I found out when my "power hours" were and made sure I used them wisely. I took Tylenol© to relieve aches and Compazine© for the nausea. To keep hydrated I drank three quarts of water and a quart of Gatorade© every day. Also, I learned that if I took the interferon at night before going to bed, I was able to sleep off a lot of the side effects.

Shortly after I began my treatment, I had a PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography). The results showed a tumor in my colon in the exact spot where my father had a malignant one in 1986. In my case, it was pre-malignant. I firmly believe that its early detection and removal saved my life. I'm convinced to this day that my guardian angel sent me the melanoma so doctors would find the growth in my colon before it became malignant.

"As far as I was concerned, I had two choices: live or die. And I didn't plan to die."

Today I can say that I'm a three-year survivor ... and counting. For the most part, I have resumed my full schedule and even taken on some new causes, such as raising awareness of both Alzheimer's disease and melanoma.

I am dedicated to helping people with melanoma and educating everyone about sun protection. It's my aim to make each adult recognize the need for a complete body skin check by a dermatologist once a year. Because if you have melanoma, it is so very important to find it early. I also want to reach our kids and teach them about using sunscreens; wearing sunglasses, hats and other protective clothing; and staying out of the midday sun. It's the damage we do to our skin in the first 18 years that comes back to haunt us. No one is immune to melanoma, but we can stop this epidemic with three simple rules: have yearly full-body checks, use sunscreen, keep kids safe.

About two years ago, I received a letter from a young man in Illinois. He had seen me on television and also had heard about melanoma screenings in his area. Since he had spent his youth in the sun, he was prompted to go for a screening. Sure enough, a small Stage I melanoma was found on his back that was easily removed, with no further treatment necessary. Later, the doctor asked the young man who had encouraged him to get screened for the disease and he said, "Maureen Reagan sent me." I'm proud of that.

Once you have been diagnosed with cancer it is just something you have to deal with. Even if it doesn't show up again, you have to be vigilant. It's like living with a 4,000-pound elephant in your living room. It's never gone from your mind. However, I have two beliefs: God doesn't give us more than we can handle, and God doesn't do something without a reason. That's why I share my story.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2000.