Melanoma Survivor Gets Help, Shares Hope

"As scary as it was, I always tried to stay strong and positive. Cancer can go wherever it wants. I can't stop it, but it can't take my attitude and it can't take my faith. I was determined to stay strong and fight until I couldn't do it anymore."

Rosemary Manbachi
photo of Rosemary Manbachi

When Rosemary Manbachi was being treated for melanoma skin cancer in 2012 and 2013, she received support from her large close-knit family, and sought out resources from her community, including the American Cancer Society. She needed the help. Despite aggressive treatment that included surgeries, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and radiation, Manbachi’s cancer continued to spread for almost a year before showing any signs of improvement. At its worst, the cancer was in Manbachi’s spleen, legs, chest, and rib cage, and broke out in painful tumors all over her neck and arms.

“As scary as it was, I always tried to stay strong and positive,” said Manbachi. “Cancer can go wherever it wants. I can’t stop it, but it can’t take my attitude and it can’t take my faith. I was determined to stay strong and fight until I couldn’t do it anymore.”

From giving care to getting care

Before she found out she had melanoma, Manbachi was a pediatric nurse practitioner for 31 years, most recently working with cardiology patients and their families in outreach clinics of Hershey Medical Center in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton region of Pennsylvania. She was also used to taking care of everybody else in her large extended family, including her mother, who died of esophageal cancer in 2007.

“I knew firsthand how devastating cancer is to the caregiver and family. Cancer is a family disease. It’s not just the patient who gets the diagnosis,” said Manbachi. “I think it’s harder on the family than on the patient.”

Manbachi says she went from being a nurse practitioner one day, to being a cancer patient the next. Unlike many cases of melanoma, hers was not discovered because of a mole or other skin changes. Her first symptom was swelling in her left foot. An ultrasound discovered enlarged lymph nodes, which led to biopsies that helped doctors diagnose melanoma. It was already considered stage IV. The original site where the cancer started was never found.

When she learned the stage of her melanoma, Manbachi says she was sad, scared, anxious, and overwhelmed. She was concerned about the impact of her illness on her husband, daughter, and the rest of her family. She worried she might not survive, and that her time with them would be cut short. But after the initial shock, she says, she became determined to remain positive and strong and fight.

“I would allow myself to cry for 20 minutes, and then I would get up and go on,” said Manbachi. “I tried to take it one day at a time. If I focused too much on the future, I became overwhelmed and anxious.”

Her initial treatment plan included surgery to remove 17 lymph nodes, followed by chemotherapy. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning. Just 8 weeks later, Manbachi’s cancer came back and was spreading rapidly in her body.

‘I had hope.’

Manbachi’s cancer care team determined her best option was a clinical trial. She entered the hospital in July 2012 to receive interleukin-2 (IL-2), an immunotherapy drug. Her doctor told her it would make her feel like she had a very bad case of the flu. And she did. Her side effects included nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, high fever, confusion, and 40 pounds of weight gain from excess fluid.

No matter how sick she got, Manbachi says she never complained. She was determined to get the highest dose of the drug she could tolerate and stay on it as long as possible. Her husband stayed by her bedside and her brothers and sisters kept her spirits up. But in October 2012, scans showed her cancer was continuing to spread, and she was taken off the clinical trial.

“My biggest fear was that I was going to run out of options," said Manbachi. "But I kept reading and researching about melanoma. I had hope for new research being done for melanoma.”

Manbachi’s doctors decided on a treatment combination they had not tried before in any other patient. She received the immunotherapy drug Yervoy (ipilimumab), the targeted therapy drug Zelboraf (vemurafenib), and radiation. She had to go to the hospital – more than 2 hours from home – every day for treatment for 4 weeks. During that time, she stayed at the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge facility in Hershey. A Hope Lodge community offers free, home-like accommodations for cancer patients and their caregivers whose best treatment options are away from home. She checked in the day after Christmas, and she and her husband spent New Year’s Eve there, where staff threw a party for the guests.

“It was a wonderful experience. The staff were overwhelmingly welcoming. I was 2 hours away from home, but never felt like I was away from family. Every day someone came in to volunteer, make dinner, and play games,” said Manbachi. “It’s one thing to have physical and medical support, but emotional support is very helpful. The group we were with played a big part in helping me heal emotionally on my cancer journey. I still stay in touch with those people. My family held a fundraiser and I donated back to the Hershey Hope Lodge, Hershey’s Melanoma Team, and a prescription fund for cancer patients.”

Meanwhile, Manbachi developed lupus, arthritis, and severe skin rashes from her treatments. She had large tumors in her groin and neck and she could barely walk. But she was encouraged that the melanoma had not spread to her brain, liver, lungs or heart. She was determined to continue the treatment.

In February 2013, after nearly a year of showing no response to any treatment, Manbachi’s scans found no evidence of cancer in her body. “It was like a miracle,” she said. In December 2013, she was taken off all her cancer medication and had follow-up tests every 3 months for 2 years. Now she has those check-ups every 6 months.

Key advice

Today, Manbachi shares her story with as many people as she can, whether she’s in a support group or a doctor’s office waiting room. “You never know when your story will encourage or help others,” she says. “I’m always happy to help others with cancer.”

Among her advice:

  • Seek out a committed team of health care providers who specialize in the type of cancer you have.
  • Be an advocate for yourself and stay educated about the specific type of cancer you have and the treatment options available.
  • Eat a healthy diet and exercise on a regular basis, even if it’s only walking daily.
  • Get regular checkups and health care screenings.
  • Use all the resources available to cancer patients in your area. Cancer wellness centers and hospitals offer support groups, exercise classes, massages, and more. Look Good Feel Better is a free program that helps cancer patients manage the appearance-related side effects of treatment.
  • Try to manage your stress and not let the little things bother you.
  • Take one day at a time and one treatment at a time. Try to stay positive and stay in the present.
  • Enjoy every minute you have with family and friends, and appreciate life.
  • Reach out to others with cancer and tell your story because we gain strength from each other.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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