Rare Melanoma Can’t Keep This Clown Down

By Steve Blanchard - September 12, 2019

One of K-Tee the Clown’s favorite magic tricks is turning three different lengths of rope into equal segments right before your eyes. It’s a trick she learned in clown school and one that delights the children she entertains.

But K-Tee, who is also known as Karen Tilton, needed more than magic to survive a unique melanoma diagnosis in 2018.

Karen Tilton with her husband, Dean.

“I went for a routine exam in September 2018, and when the doctor tapped on my stomach from left to right, I felt a pain on the right side,” said Tilton, 76. “It surprised me and it surprised him. I’ve always been very healthy and have never even been on any medication.”

But after she visited an oncologist near her home in The Villages, she learned she had cancer: stage 3 melanoma on her lymph nodes.

“I was just shocked because I never had any strange marks on my skin and I rarely get in the sun,” she said. “I just couldn’t understand it. How do you get melanoma inside your body?”

Dr. Jonathan Zager, surgical oncologist.

According to Dr. Jonathan Zager, a surgical oncologist and senior member with Moffitt Cancer Center’s Cutaneous Oncology Program, finding melanoma inside your body is not very common. Only about 5% of melanoma metastases are referred to as “unknown primaries,” meaning it’s unclear where the cancer originated before it shows up internally, such as on a lymph node.

“In Karen’s case, this is a melanoma that arose in a node without any kind of lesion on the skin,” Zager said. “It’s a difficult melanoma to diagnose.”

Immediately after her diagnosis, Tilton came to Moffitt for treatment, where she began immunotherapy with the melanoma drug Keytruda.“Immunotherapy has revolutionized the treatment of melanoma and is a first line of therapy,” Zager said. “Targeted therapy is also at the forefront but is for patients who have certain mutations in their melanoma.”

Zager eventually removed all of the lymph nodes in Tilton’s right groin and pelvis. There is no longer any evidence of the cancer and her prognosis is a good one.  

“Moffitt saved my life,” she said. “I knew I didn’t want traditional chemotherapy and my husband and I have always said that if we ever had to face cancer, Moffitt was where we wanted to be.”

FREE SKIN CANCER SCREENINGS AT TROPICANA FIELD

WHO: Open to the community

WHAT: Moffitt’s Mole Patrol will offer free skin screenings. No appointments or insurance required.

WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 21, 3:30-6:30 p.m.

WHERE: Outside Gate 1 at Tropicana Field, 1 Tropicana Drive, St. Petersburg

COST: Free (tickets to the Tampa Bay Rays-Boston Red Sox game are not required)

While Tilton is all smiles while sharing her story, she admits that her year of treatment was tough. She had to cut down on her volunteer hours with various organizations and she even put K-Tee the Clown on the shelf for a little while in order to focus on her own health. Fortunately, she had plenty of friends and family, including her husband, offering encouragement.

“There was just so much support — from our neighbors, from other clowns — it made it bearable,” she said. “Putting the wig and makeup back on felt so great and it’s such a rewarding experience.”

And it seemed appropriate that her return to the purple wig and oversized bowtie that define K-Tee the Clown was at Moffitt’s Pediatric Melanoma Clinic in August. There, she entertained more than a dozen children facing the very same disease she is conquering.

“These young children and their families are so cute,” she said. “And for just one minute they forget about cancer, they forget about treatment and they can just focus on being a kid. That makes everyone smile, which is a clown’s job, isn’t it?”

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