April 1, 2003: Headlines: COS - Nepal: Cancer: The Saratogian: Nepal RPCV Heather Atkinson advises people to stay out of the sun

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Nepal: Peace Corps Nepal : The Peace Corps in Nepal: April 1, 2003: Headlines: COS - Nepal: Cancer: The Saratogian: Nepal RPCV Heather Atkinson advises people to stay out of the sun

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Nepal RPCV Heather Atkinson advises people to stay out of the sun

Nepal RPCV Heather Atkinson advises people to stay out of the sun

Like many who grew up in the Northeast, Heather Atkinson loves sports, and revels in the change of seasons.
During the winter, she skis and snowshoes; in the summer, she plays golf; and year-round, she plays basketball.

As a teen, Atkinson worked on her tan during the warm months, and recalls visiting her grandparents in Florida and basking in the sun.

''People used to tell me I'd get skin cancer, but I didn't believe them,'' said Atkinson, a tall, curly-haired blonde with blue eyes and freckles. ''I always believed it couldn't happen to me.''

During her college years, Atkinson spent time with the Peace Corps in Nepal, a small, landlocked country between India and China, where the climate is warm nine months a year.

In 1996, before she left the United States, Atkinson noticed a mark on her right shoulder.

''The mark seemed suspicious. It felt tingly, and it appeared to be changing size,'' said Atkinson, building and planning coordinator for the town of Malta. ''The color changed, as well -- it turned bluish and darker.''

But when she went to her doctor to have it checked, Atkinson was told it was nothing to be concerned about.

''He told me to come back when I was 45 if the spot was still there,'' said Atkinson, now 32.

In Nepal, where she was doing community development work, Atkinson traveled from village to village by bicycle, since Peace Corps volunteers aren't allowed to drive due to liability.

She used protective sunscreen, but with her face and shoulders exposed to nearly constant sunshine, Atkinson developed a tan during her time there.

While in Nepal, she sought the advice of another physician, who excised some of the skin lesions, and said the spot was likely a fungal infection from the local water.

''They didn't have any high-tech equipment to test the skin sample in Nepal,'' Atkinson said. ''But six months later, when I got home, I talked to my mother, who's a nurse, and she brought me right to a plastic surgeon.''

The spot on Atkinson's right shoulder was immediately removed, and although the growth had spread to her muscle layer, the surgery was a success. But about two years later, Atkinson noticed a bump in her neck, also on the right side.

In April 2002, she was told the melanoma had spread into the lymph node area of her neck, and metastasized into her liver, lungs and spleen. One of the smaller lumps in her neck was removed, and her doctors immediately developed an aggressive treatment plan.

''From May to August, I had chemotherapy, and I became incredibly sick,'' Atkinson said. ''I lost all my hair, I was sick to my stomach, I couldn't eat; it was very bad.''

With help and support from family members and from her fiance Richard, Atkinson found out about a John Wayne Institute study on the latest bio-chemo therapy drug Interleuken, a powerful immune system booster.

She was accepted into the 12-month trial, and travels to Boston's Beth Israel Hospital monthly for two days of intravenous treatments. Five days a week, she injects herself with smaller doses of Interleuken. The trial period ends this July.

''Right now, it's all stable,'' Atkinson said. ''There was one bump in my neck I could feel all the time, and it has shrunk right down to where I can barely feel it.''

Atkinson's co-workers at Malta Town Hall pitched in by donating their own vacation time, and she has continued to work throughout the long process of fighting the cancer.

''Everyone has been great to me, and positive thinking definitely helps,'' Atkinson said. ''I also try to keep stress down, to pray, and most of all, to never take things for granted.''

Atkinson said if there is a message she can deliver to people, it's to avoid the sun at all costs and to keep a watchful eye on their health.

''I wasn't tired. I wasn't in pain. I ate well, never smoked, hardly ever drank, and yet I got melanoma,'' Atkinson said. ''People should go with their gut instincts, and if they feel something is wrong, keep going to the doctor, get a second and third opinion.''

With wedding plans set for Oct. 4, 2003, Atkinson said she is watchful about being in the sun, and when she sees people tanning, she wishes she could tell them about the dangers.

''I stay out of the sun, and I wear a hat. When I see people lying in the sun, or going to tanning places, it really scares me,'' Atkinson said. ''When I say I have melanoma, people think it can just be removed and cured, but it's the fastest growing cancer, and it could cause death. I would tell them, 'Give me your life if you don't want it. Don't take the risk.'''

©The Saratogian 2003

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Story Source: The Saratogian

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Nepal; Cancer



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