Lena has always been a big believer in self-care. She lived a healthy lifestyle and stayed physically active. So when Lena began experiencing stomach bloating and vaginal bleeding in her early 40s, she knew something was wrong.
When the symptoms became more frequent, Lena made an appointment with her gynecologist who ordered multiple tests to determine the cause. Lena was shocked by the results. The tests indicated she had stage 3 vaginal mucosal melanoma. A referral to a cancer specialist delivered even more devastating news: Lena’s prognosis was 18 to 24 months to live.
Mucosal melanoma is a very rare subtype of melanoma that can occur in any mucous membranes, such as the throat, mouth, vagina or anus. The prognosis for patients is usually lower than other types of melanoma because mucosal melanoma is most often diagnosed at an advanced stage.
As a young woman facing this prognosis, Lena says she was determined to get treatment at a top-rated cancer center. Her research landed on Moffitt Cancer Center since it was one of the few NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers with experience treating vaginal mucosal melanoma.
During her first visit to Moffitt, medical oncologists Drs. Ahmad Tarhini and Mitchel Hoffman, reassured Lena that her cancer was not only treatable but also curable. Those were "magical words" to Lena, who immediately felt that she was in good hands.
A multispecialty team in the Gynecologic and Cutaneous Oncology Programs worked together to provide Lena with a personalized treatment plan that involved immune checkpoint inhibitors drugs, anti-PD-1 nivolumab combined with anti-CTLA-4 ipilimumab.
The goal of the immunotherapy treatment was to shrink the tumor so radiation and surgery could be performed afterward. Lena remained hopeful as she went through three rounds of immunotherapy. She says the side effects of the immunotherapy were challenging but the thought of potentially beating the cancer gave her the drive and courage to fight.
The immunotherapy treatment proved successful. It eliminated the tumor, as a result, neither radiation nor surgery was needed. She recently returned to Moffitt for a checkup and her scans came back clear.
"I love Dr. Hoffman, Dr. Tarhini and my nurses who helped me through the hardest battle of my life," says Lena. "I’m so thankful for the level of care and their expertise in cancer treatment. Because of Moffitt, I’m alive today."
Lena encourages women to get to know their bodies and stay on top of cancer screenings. She also emphasizes the need to research the leading cancer experts in their fields.
"I wanted to share my story and give others hope during the darkest times of their cancer. You can beat cancer with advanced cancer treatment such as immunotherapy,” says Lena. "It works and I’m alive today to share my story."
Lena is now living every day to the fullest. "I can’t give up the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of life," says Lena. "How lucky we are to exist."