Erin Youngerberg’s Blog Melanoma in the City Documents Her Battle with Skin Cancer
With her pale German-Irish skin, the Paulus Hook resident says she was always “very aware of putting sunscreen on and trying to cover up.” She also avoided tanning beds, using them a dozen times at most in her life.
The sun-conscious Youngerberg never expected in 2010 to be diagnosed with nodular melanoma.
“Typically when you think of melanoma, it’s kind of an old-person cancer. They’re people in their 70s or 80s who had a lot of sun exposure and realize they have melanoma. Now it’s really growing in the younger generation… people in 20s or 30s,” she says, adding that more awareness might be leading to earlier detection.
It all began with an irregular mole that Youngerberg, 33, noticed in 2009 while she was still living in Milwaukee.
“I had a mole on my upper right back and I asked my regular doctor about it a couple times. It didn’t fit all of the ACBDE (melanoma warning signs),” she says. Suspicious moles are often studied for Asymmetry, (irregular) Borders, (variegated) Color, a Diameter greater than the size of a pencil eraser, and Evolution over time.
“It was perfectly round, wasn’t that big and was pink, not black or brown, but it itched,” says Youngerberg. “And (my doctor) said ‘It’s nothing, it’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.'”
A year or so later, however, Youngerberg’s mole began rapidly growing out of control during a vacation in New Zealand and Australia.
Doctors in North Carolina (where she had transferred for work) also thought it was nothing to worry about, but removed it to give Youngerberg peace of mind. A week later, she learned it was nodular melanoma, the most aggressive form of the disease. Unlike most forms of melanoma, where the tumor grows in diameter, nodular melanoma grows in thickness by further penetrating the skin.
Youngerberg was sent to a surgical oncologist at the University of North Carolina who excised surrounding tissue, leaving her with a huge scar across her back. The doctor ordered a biospy on lymphnodes located near her tumor, which came back positive. Doctors hurried to removed the cancerous tissues from her body and used CT tests and MRIs to make sure she was all clear.
Soon after her move to Jersey City in late 2010, however, a CT scan revealed a new nodule in Youngerberg’s lung. In May this year, another tumor was found, this time in her small intestine.
Despite the difficult and heavy nature of her story, Youngerberg relates her tale calmly and clearly, focusing on what can still be done. “We’ve been trying to figure out what treatments to take. There have been a lot of new developments – the FDA approved three new treatments last year,” she notes.
Youngerberg almost qualified for a trial testing a drug designed to help those like her with BRAF gene mutations that make them more susceptible to getting cancer. At the time, however, she had no tumors and didn’t qualify. Since a tumor was found in her intestine, she has been taking newly approved drug Zelboraf, which pumps up her immune system.
“The plan right now is that this drug will shrink the spot I have and they’ll remove the rest with surgery,” she says. For now, it’s a waiting game to see if the new pill works.
Today, Youngerberg still works full-time as a supply chain team leader while undergoing treatments at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “I still work, I still see my friends. I feel pretty good. I make sure though now if I’m tired, I’ll rest and not push myself. My body needs to do what it needs to do.”
In February, she started documenting her journey on her blog, Melanoma and the City.
“Part of the reason I started the blog was to keep my friends and family informed… When I see new articles, I try and post that info too so they have an idea of what new drugs are out there, what new treatments people should look at. I also get questions from people, like how to be more aware of sun exposure,” she says, adding that melanoma awareness has become an important cause for her.
“When in doubt, cut it out,” she says. “A small scar is a small price to pay for piece of mind.”
“I have a wonderful team of doctors that watch out for me but I think it’s important to be an advocate for your own health. It’s good to be aware so you can ask questions like, ‘What treatments are available?’ ‘What plans?’ or ‘Are there trials coming?'”
In her search and hope for a cure, Youngerberg knows her chances.
“If you look at statistics, when I was at stage 3B, there was a 50-50 chance I’d live five years. When you switch to stage 4, you have a 50-50 chance of living one year – I went to stage 4 a year and a half ago,” she says. “It’s scary but you have to take it one day at a time, be involved with your care and try everything you can to stop it and get rid of it.”
Support from friends and family has been key, she says.
“I think the hardest part is that this all happened when I moved to place where I didn’t know anybody. All my friends were a thousand miles away,” she says. “I’m a pretty independent person. I go to appointments by myself, but they’ll check in. They’re always asking, ‘What do you need? What can I do for you?’ …I think they’ve all been good and supportive.”
To follow Erin Youngerberg’s journey, read her blog Melanoma and the City.
Photo courtesy of Erin Youngerberg