Hearing the word “cancer” from a doctor is a devastating shock. Tracy Mastorakis has heard it several times.
First diagnosed with melanoma (skin cancer) years ago, Mastorakis had a recurrence of her cancer that brought her to Baystate Regional Cancer Program.
“I felt a lump in my groin and knew exactly what it was. My dermatologist got me an appointment with an oncology surgeon the next day,” says Mastorakis.
THE FULL SPECTRUM OF CANCER CARE
That surgeon was Dr. Richard Arenas, chief, Surgical Oncology, Baystate Regional Cancer Program.
“Dr. Arenas and his assistant were phenomenal,” she says. “They were very understanding and caring, and they tried to calm my fears the best that they could. Dr. Arenas told me that the fact it had been seven years between my cancers was a good sign.”
When the biopsy came back positive, Mastorakis had surgery to remove the melanoma along with several lymph nodes.
Beyond surgery and medical care, “Dr. Arenas and his assistant gave me emotional support and information about all the other issues that go along with a cancer diagnosis—from nutritional advice to helping me with my anxiety,” shares Mastorakis. She also met with oncology social worker Marlene Quinlan, LICSW, who helped her manage her stress.
Mastorakis, who moved to the area years ago from sunny Southern California, had been a sun worshipper for most of her early life.
“The theory is that my extensive sun exposure when I was young caused my two melanomas. I was outdoors a lot and loved having a tan. My first visit to a dermatologist was at age 14 when I was diagnosed with basil cell cancer. The doctor told me that I was way too young for this, but I was young and didn’t pay attention to his words,” Mastorakis says.
PREVENTING SKIN CANCER
Tanners and sun lovers aren’t the only people at risk for skin cancer. Anyone who spends time outdoors can get skin cancer, whether they have light or dark skin.
According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common cancer. More than 5.4 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are diagnosed each year.
Dr. Arenas says you can help prevent skin cancer by staying in the shade during peak sun hours (between 10 am and 4 pm) and using sunscreen whenever you are outside. Also, avoid tanning beds, which are linked to an increased risk for melanoma.
Early detection is another important way to stop melanoma,” she adds. According to the Baystate oncologist, people should check their skin for moles or growths that change over time, have irregular borders, or vary in color. Also, see your physician every year for a skin exam.
SKIN CANCER SURGERY AND OTHER OPTIONS
Surgery is the main treatment for most cases of skin cancer. Surgery can manage the cancer before it grows or spread, especially when the cancer is found early.
Patients whose cancer has spread to the lymph nodes like Mastorakis, may need additional treatment such as interferon drugs. Interferons are naturally occurring proteins that are made by cells of your immune system.
Interferons do not kill cancerous cells. Instead, they boost your immune system response to cancer cells.
Dr. John McCann, from the Baystate Regional Cancer Program, treated Mastorakis after her surgery. He explains that interferon can help stop the return of melanoma, but it can give some patients very difficult side effects, including fatigue.
“Tracy had these side effects, so we decided together to end her treatment early. However, she was on interferon long enough to benefit from it.”
In addition to the side effects of the interferon treatment, Mastorakis developed lymphedema—a swelling in a limb caused by lymph (a liquid that contains white blood cells) building up. Lymphedema can occur after lymph nodes are removed.
A longtime flight attendant, Mastorakis retired from flying when lymphedema made it impossible for her to move around the airplane. “I feel very lucky to have traveled across the country, seeing places and meeting people I might not have. Even though I’ve traveled so far from my home here in Palmer, I am also very fortunate to have received the medical care I needed so close to home,” says Mastorakis.
According to Dr. McCann, “new treatment options for skin cancer are being reviewed constantly. Survival rates for people with advanced metastatic melanoma are improving.”
MELANOMA CLINICAL TRIALS
Baystate offers clinical trials for advanced melanoma, which test the newest immune therapies with other medications targeting the biology of the melanoma.
For more information about these clinical trials, and to learn if you qualify, contact Oncology Clinical Trials at Baystate at 413-794-4154.