There was a pit in her stomach and a lump in her throat as Deb Wieringa prepared to tell her family the news, and it wasn’t good. She watched as the faces of her loved ones filled with fear and sadness. She was facing a ferocious disease and the strong possibility it might take her life.
“I felt normal. I felt fine,” Deb recalled. “I had no symptoms. I was just me.” Inside her body however, a war was raging and the enemy was winning.
In 2013, Deb saw a dermatologist when a spot on her back continued to cause her problems. “The spot looked horrible,” she exclaimed. “It was an ugly purple, black, red and blue pattern, and I knew something wasn’t right.”
Deb’s doctor soberly stated, “Let’s just take the spot off and send it in for analysis. If it’s not worrisome, I’ll smooth the spot out in our next visit.” Deb tried not to be overly concerned, but an alarm was sounding in her head and she feared what might come next.
A couple of days later, the dermatologist’s office called urging Deb to come in immediately. Deb was told she had stage two melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer. The cancer was very aggressive and while it could be surgically removed, beyond that was an unknown.
Metro Health – University of Michigan Health Medical Director of Surgical Oncology Dr. Larry McCahill was charged with Deb’s care. “It was a very deep and severe melanoma,” he described. “It was 9 millimeters deep, which is highly concerning. We knew she’d have to undergo close surveillance with follow-up appointments every three months.”
“I was in a fog. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m dying. How can I be dying if I don’t even feel sick?’” As Deb sat down with her family to tell them about her diagnosis, she vowed to fight. “I assured them I was not going to take this laying down.” And so, Deb’s battle began.
The next couple of years were full of ups and downs for Deb. In October of 2014, a routine scan revealed a recurrence of melanoma on her back, and Dr. McCahill performed a second surgery. She wasn’t out of the woods yet, and each new scan left her anxious for the results.
Deb’s worst fear was that the cancer metastasized to other parts of her body. In August 2015, she again met with her oncologist, and that fear was confirmed. Spots showed the cancer had spread to her lungs, and her team agreed it was inoperable.
“In the beginning I was very angry. I told myself this can’t be happening. This isn’t right. I certainly am not ready to die. But I always came back to a feeling of peace. I knew I was going to be healed. I just didn’t know if that would happen here on earth or in heaven.”
Over the next few months, the cancerous spots on Deb’s lungs continued to grow. In the midst of her terrifying reality, hope came in the form of a new, FDA-approved drug called Pembrolizumab. A familiar brand-name for the drug is Keytruda.
“Our affiliation with University of Michigan Health is extremely beneficial for patients like Deb,” Dr. McCahill explained. “On a weekly basis, we discuss complex patient cases with physicians there to determine the best treatment options. This allows us to be extremely current with changes in melanoma care, and the use of Pembrolizumab was one of those changes.”