by Anita Wasserburger
At 73 years young, I am fully enjoying my life. I am blessed and awed by both the challenges thrown my way and the determination I didn’t know I had until I faced them. You see, cancer was not my first battle.
I was 45 years old when my husband was tragically killed in a boating accident while we were celebrating the 4th of July with family and friends. The nightmare of my husband’s accident not only affected me but also our two daughters, who were 18 and 22 at the time. In addition to keeping the three of us whole, I had to figure out how to get them through college. My husband was the breadwinner, and I had only worked part time.
Eventually I found a full-time position with a prominent medical carrier and attended an adult career college at night. The corporation paid for my education, and I took the Bay Area transit to and from work, doing my homework on the train. I was determined to do everything in my power to help my daughters graduate from college. Losing their dad was tragic enough; they were not going to also miss out on getting an education.
Through hard work and grit, I became Vice President and Director of Medical Benefits at my company. I served nonprofit organizations that provided medical benefits to people living in poverty. This new, unplanned career turned out to be rewarding and gratifying.
Here I was, facing another unexpected tragedy. But I was determined to get through this new challenge.
Time passed quickly, and my daughters graduated from college. They both married and each had two sons; all four of my grandsons call me Merna. Life was good.
Then, at age 68, I was diagnosed with melanoma. A dark mole under my arm grew to a stage IV tumor the size of a lemon in less than two years. The cancer was aggressive, and there was a chance it would take away the use of my arm. Here I was, facing another unexpected tragedy. But I was determined to get through this new challenge.
I enrolled in a melanoma research trial at a well-known research university. I fit the criteria for this trial because I had the BRAF mutation, which is inhibited by one of the two experimental drugs that were being tested, Zelboraf and Cotellic. The drug combination was eventually approved by the FDA.
Though they worked, these medicines weren’t without side effects. My skin would break out in visible adhesions on my limbs, and I experienced extreme sensitivity to the sun. I worked with an oncology skin specialist to treat my adhesions and learned to use a very high dosage of sunscreen along with sun protective clothing, including hats.
I must have worn every style of hat possible! When I went to Little League baseball games in my hats, my grandsons would say, “Well, you can’t miss Merna; look for the big hat!” But it didn’t matter what I looked like; I was on a mission to beat cancer, enjoy my family, and attend as many games as my grandsons played.
Now I’m in remission and off all cancer medication. My oncologist closely monitors me, so I have all the scans and exams needed to ensure that melanoma does not come back. I really have been given a second chance, and with God’s help and self-determination, I intend to keep loving and living for a long time!
Anita Wasserburger is a “young” senior adult melanoma survivor living in Walnut Creek, CA.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2017.