How a melanoma survivor built a new foundation after cancer

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rachelbrown57.jpgBy Necie Green

When Rachel Brown's father died suddenly, she was left to run his home design and building company. She was just 26 years old. Between grieving and learning the ropes, Rachel had a lot on her plate.

So when she first noticed a mole on her back, she ignored it -- despite having a family history of melanoma and her use of tanning beds since high school.

"I thought melanoma was only for people in their 80s," she says.
She watched as the mole grew larger and turned black over the next couple of years. But still, she waited.

Rachel's melanoma treatment

Finally, Rachel went to the dermatologist to have the mole removed. Three days later, she received a melanoma diagnosis. She decided to travel to MD Anderson from her home in Alabama for melanoma treatment.

Rachel had her first surgery to remove the area around the mole, and later learned the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She had another surgery to remove all of the lymph nodes under her arms.

At 28, she felt like the walls were crumbling around her.

Finding a solid foundation after her melanoma diagnosis
Rachel says her faith has helped her through the toughest moments.

"It's helped me find comfort and elation when I least expected it," she says.

When offered an opportunity to participate in a clinical trial for a vaccine that could prevent melanoma, Rachel relied on her faith to guide her decision.

"I went home, thought about it, asked family and friends and prayed," she says. "I realized that even if it didn't save my life, it would give science and doctors an opportunity to figure out how to save somebody else's life."

She returned to Houston every three weeks for a year to receive the Lupron vaccine. Though she walked the halls of MD Anderson alone, she never felt lonely, thanks to the volunteers and her health care team led by Jeffrey Gershenwald, M.D., and Nicholas Papadopoulos, M.D.

"Drs. Gershenwald and Papadopoulos and their nurses and staff are phenomenal," Rachel says.

Dr. Gershenwald still calls to check on her periodically and informed her of Texas legislation banning tanning beds for those under age 18.

Rebuilding brick-by-brick
In February, Rachel celebrated five years of being cancer-free.  Since her melanoma diagnosis, she's endured many challenges  --  multiple surgeries, permanent nerve damage and divorce.

But despite the difficulties, she feels blessed to have the opportunity to rebuild her life as a mom, business-owner, half-marathon runner, soon-to-be wife and, most importantly, melanoma survivor. She refuses to live in fear and tries to live a life full of promise with no regrets.

"The biggest thing cancer has done for me is encourage me to go for it," she says. "Whatever it is you want to do in your life, just go for it."

Melanoma is one of the cancers MD Anderson is focusing on as part of our Moon Shots Program to dramatically reduce cancer deaths. Learn more about our Melanoma Moon Shot.

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