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A Success Story - Sonia Potter

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Sonia Potter 

Sonia is attending Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansa, majoring in General Studies.  Sonia's battle with cancer has helped her change her career plans to help change people's lives and help spread awareness of skin cancer.   She has survived Stage III Melanoma.  In her own words:

“My name is Sonia Potter.  I am 31 years old from Wichita, Kansas.  I was diagnosed with Malignant Melanoma on April 11, 2005.  It all started when my family physician, Dr. Larry Derksen, removed a mole that had developed on my right foot within a couple of months.  This mole was originally a freckle on top of my right foot that I have had since I was a little girl.  My only symptoms were that it changed from a flat brown freckle to a black mole and it started itching all the time.

When Dr. Derksen removed the mole, it was 2mm deep.  At this point I was considered to have Stage II Melanoma and I was referred to an Oncologist, Dr. Dennis Moore, Jr. in Kansas.  Because of the depth that the melanoma had grown in my foot, Dr. Moore explained that the next step was to have surgery to remove more skin around the original site to make sure the margins were clear of melanoma.  He referred me to Dr. Joseph Poggi.  My first surgery was April 26, 2005 in Wichita.  Dr. Joseph Poggi removed 2mm of skin around the original site on the top of my foot to make sure all margins were clear of melanoma, and then he did a skin graft.  He took out three lymph nodes in my right groin area; one of the lymph nodes tested positive for melanoma.  When I went back to see Dr. Moore for my results, he informed me that I had one lymph node that came up positive for melanoma and at this point he wanted to refer me to an Oncologist in Houston, Texas at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

When I called to schedule my appointment with M.D. Anderson, I requested to see Dr. Nicholas E. Papadopoulos, MD.  I knew about Dr. Papadopoulos from one of his previous patients that had a similar situation as I have and she has been cancer free for ten years.  My first appointment with Dr. Papadopoulos was May 24, 2005; at this appointment he explained that I have invasive acral lentiginous type melanoma, Clark level IV, Breslow thickness at vascular invasion - Perineural invasion was present.  At this point, I was diagnosed as having Stage III Melanoma.  Dr. Papadopoulos explained to me that since I had one lymph node that showed up positive, he recommended that I have a complete right inguinal lymph node dissection and that I follow that with treatment to kill any melanoma cancer cells that may have entered my bloodstream or my lymph system.  I had the option of taking high dose interferon for 1 year or I could enter a clinical trial at M.D. Anderson.  I chose to have a lymph node dissection and follow that with interferon treatment for one year.  I was referred to Dr. Merrick Ross at M.D. Anderson for my second surgery to have a lymph node dissection.  After speaking to Dr. Ross May 24, 2005, we decided that I should have the lymph node dissection as soon as possible.  Dr. Ross got me in for surgery the next day.  Dr. Ross removed twenty lymph nodes which revealed that all twenty were negative for melanoma.

I went back to Wichita and started adjuvant treatment with high dose interferon at the Cancer Center of Kansas.  I had completed one week of treatment when blood tests revealed that I had an elevation of my liver enzymes and my treatment was discontinued.  Dr. Moore spent a couple of hours with me explaining what my options were at this point.  I could either continue the interferon treatments with the high risk of needing a liver transplant at the end of one year or I could travel to Houston, Texas to take part in a clinical trial.  I decided to take part in a clinical research study on a vaccine treatment called 'MEL 44' starting October 15, 2005 at M.D. Anderson. 

This treatment was a series of vaccinations I received over a period of one year.  The first two months of this trial required that I was seen at M.D. Anderson several times each week.  I lived in Houston for the first two months and then I was seen every three months after that for one year.  I completed the 'MEL 44' trial October 30, 2006 with no evidence of melanoma.  I went back for a follow up and a series of testing on December 7, 2006.  At this appointment Dr. Papadopoulos went over all of my tests showing no evidence of melanoma.  When he examined my skin for signs of melanoma, I pointed out a black spot on my right leg about the size of the end of a toothpick that I had noticed the day before.  When he looked closer he discovered two more spots on my right leg, he asked me to change my flight home so he could get a second opinion from Dr. Ross.  When Dr. Ross examined the three spots he removed one and sent it to the lab for a biopsy.  When the results of the biopsy came back positive for melanoma, my doctors explained that these spots were called in-transit disease and that they were going to have a conference with several other specialists to decide what the best treatment would be.  Fourteen spots came up on my leg within a month's time.

My doctors decided that the best form of treatment at this point would be to have a limb perfusion on my right leg.  They took a tourniquet and isolated my leg from the rest of my body and infused a high dose chemo without oxygen for one hour then flushed the chemo out with saline and pumped blood back into my leg.  Dr. Ross performed this treatment January 24, 2007; I was in the hospital at M.D. Anderson for eleven days.  I went back to Houston March 6, 2007 for a follow up and testing.  Dr. Ross removed one of the spots of melanoma on my right leg to see if the treatment had killed the cancer.  He called to inform me that the biopsy came back negative and there is no evidence of melanoma at this time!

I have volunteered by going on a mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico, with my church.  We helped build a church for the local people, played with the children, and taught bible school.  I have also helped raise money for one of the United Way campaigns in Wichita.  I was able to tell my story to the Wichita Eagle Newspaper to help get the public awareness up so they could go in for free cancer screenings to get checked for skin cancer.  I spoke to a cancer support group at Westlink Christian Church in Wichita about my cancer journey.  I am also scheduled to speak in October for Victory in the Valley, a very large cancer support group.

I have had wonderful support from my family and friends and I am comfortable with the fact that my life is in the hands of some of the best doctors in the world.  I want to change my career plans to help change people's lives and help spread awareness of skin cancer.  If I can save even one person's life it was all worth it.

I am so grateful for the Cancer Survivors' Fund and all of its supporters.  It is a great honor to be given the opportunity to go back to college and better myself.  Not only will I be able to encourage other cancer survivors that they can have a bright future, I am also able to set a great example for my son - showing him that no matter what challenges he must face in his future, anything is possible.  God has shown me that not only can I go back to school as a single parent, but also as a cancer survivor.  I had the pleasure of meeting Yeshim Yonter in person, and she alone is one of my biggest inspirations to think positive and know that sometimes we are given challenges in life - like cancer - so that we can learn that we are here on earth to help and support one another.  Thank you Cancer Survivors' Fund for all your help!”

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