Melanoma Survivor: ‘Remember What You’re Fighting For’

Written By:Stacy Simon

"My advice for anyone going through treatment is to concentrate on what makes you happy. You should never forget the end goal and what you are fighting for. I was given another chance, and for that I am forever grateful."

Kelli Martucci

When Kelli Martucci moved from Michigan to New York in 2001, she felt like she was beginning a brand new stage of her life. She had beaten melanoma skin cancer, graduated from high school, and was about to start college at Long Island University. But just a few years later, the cancer came back. “My life was put on hold again,” she says. Doctors prescribed a challenging course of treatment that required her to be hospitalized, and gave her a low chance of surviving.

“My advice for anyone going through treatment is to concentrate on what makes you happy and take your mind to that place,” said Martucci. “You should never forget the end goal and what you are fighting for. I was given another chance, and for that I am forever grateful.”

A suspicious mole

Martucci’s battle with cancer started in 1999 when she was just 15 years old and noticed a new mole on her chest. Over the next few months, it began to change color and shape. It became bumpy and irregular, and eventually started to get irritated and bleed. She went to the dermatologist, who removed the mole and tested it. To her shock, the results showed she had melanoma.

The doctor sent Martucci for more tests, which revealed the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes under her arm. She was diagnosed with stage III melanoma. For the next year – her senior year of high school – Martucci had several surgeries and interferon treatment, which made her feel like she had the flu all the time. She missed a lot of school and couldn’t do a lot of the things she enjoyed, including volleyball, soccer, and painting.

The treatment was successful, and Martucci went into remission in 2001. Her tests found no more signs of cancer, and she hoped that part of her life was over.

The cancer came back

One day, about 5 years after Martucci first found out she had melanoma, she went to the emergency room with chest pains and trouble breathing. Tests revealed her worst fears. The cancer was back and had spread to her lungs. She would have to drop out of school and go back to Michigan for treatment.

Her best option was the immunotherapy drug IL-2. She spent 1 week in the hospital getting the drug through an IV, the next week at home to recover, and the next week back in the hospital. Side effects included nausea and vomiting, body aches, fatigue, fever, and very low blood pressure. In addition, she was scared. Doctors told her she had only a 10% chance of surviving. Martucci says having family and friends close by to take her mind off the cancer and remind her of happy times kept her motivated to keep fighting.

“When you have cancer, you’re so consumed with getting through treatment it’s hard to remember what you were like outside of that. Friends and family can remind you of who you are and what you’re fighting for. They can help you remember why you want to survive,” said Martucci.

Follow-up scans showed the treatment was working. The mass on Martucci’s lungs was getting smaller. She decided to go through a second round of IL-2 treatment in hopes of getting rid of the cancer completely. This time, the side effects were even worse. But again, Martucci says friends, family, and the hospital nursing staff helped her get through it. In August 2005, Martucci learned she was in complete remission with no evidence of disease.

Sharing hope

After she recovered, Martucci finished college, got married and had 4 children. “I was certainly one of the lucky ones, and I am committed to sharing my experience with the melanoma community in hopes of impacting and educating patients like me,” she says.

That includes raising money in Long Island for a skin cancer walk and her local American Cancer Society Relay For Life event. To mark 10 years of being cancer-free, Martucci spoke at a Melanoma Awareness Day event on Long Island, flew to California for a photo shoot with the drug company that made the drug she was treated with, and of course, celebrated with family and friends.

Martucci encourages people of all ages to get regular skin checks and be sun smart. When going outside, she says, wear protective clothing and sunscreen. “Every day I talk with people who are shocked that skin cancer can be so serious,” said Martucci. “People must be educated if we are going to make a difference with this terrible cancer that continues to take lives.”

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