Let's talk about skin cancer — the Janet Rathbone story

Part III of the Cancer Awareness Series
By Rachel Robles, Lifestyles editor | May 05, 2014
Photo by: Donated THE RATHBONE FAMILY — Pictured from left are Robert, Anna, Janet and Sara. Janet is a melanoma survivor.

During the spring of 2003, Janet Rathbone, of Crabtree, noticed what seemed to be a pimple on the back of her left arm. She didn’t give it much notice, but it never seemed to go away. The family doctor didn’t seem to think much of it, either.

By summertime, the pimple had turned into a bump with a reddish purple color and had grown in size. Rathbone went to another doctor who told her that it was a wart.

“I left that appointment confused and, admittedly, a bit worried,” said Rathbone. “But, hey, the doctor said it was OK.”

By September, the bump had begun to hurt and would bleed whenever something rubbed against it. Rathbone went to another doctor who was very concerned — in only a few weeks the “wart” had doubled in size and was dark. The doctor shaved it and sent it off to be tested. The next day, Oct. 1, 2003, Rathbone, age 30 at the time, was formally diagnosed with malignant melanoma.

Rathbone lives on a small farm in Silvers Cove in Crabtree. She has been married to her husband, Robert, for 18 years and is the mother of two teenage daughters, Anna and Sara. She’s a member of New Beginning Baptist Church and enjoys camping, cooking and laughing around the fire with her family. And as far as she knows, she’s the only person in her family to be diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Everything changed that day in October.

“I have been told that my girls have a 25 percent greater chance of developing melanoma, so we have them checked by our dermatologist, Dr. Gina Singleton, at least twice a year,” said Rathbone. “Both have had numerous ‘suspicious’ moles taken off — when in doubt, cut it out.”

By the end of October 2003, Rathbone underwent surgery. The surgeon removed the cancerous area and numerous layers of skin and tissue that contained cancerous cells. Today, Rathbone sports a scar that is 10 inches long and 2 inches wide on the back of her arm.

Unfortunately, it was discovered that Rathbone’s sentinel lymph node was cancerous — this meant the cancer was at Stage 4. It was also discovered during a scan that her thyroid was pre-cancerous. In December 2003, Rathbone underwent another surgery to remove lymph nodes and the right side of her thyroid.

After a few months of recovery, Rathbone began seeing Dr. Michael Heller and was put on Intron-A — a treatment that boosts the immune system to fight off cancer — the only melanoma treatment available at the time, and was told her life expectancy was five years.

“This drug leaves you feeling like you have the flu,” said Rathbone. “I took the first month intravenous for five days a week at the doctor office. For the next 11 months, Robert gave me shots three times a week. I literally had the flu for a year.”

Rathbone made a slow and steady recovery until Aug. 30, 2005, Robert’s birthday, when Heller told her that a CT scan showed a spot on her left lung.

“You talk about hard,” said Rathbone. “Having to tell my family that once again we had to fight.”

She was sent for more scans and tests, and on Dec. 1, 2005, surgeons removed the lower lobe of her left lung. She was then sent to the Melanoma Clinic at Carolina Medical Center and told that she wouldn’t live six months. Rathbone returned home and began treatment.

“I was given God’s grace, and he has chosen to keep me here,” said Rathbone.

She has had several scares since September 2011, but after numerous biopsies and tests has been declared cancer free.

“Having cancer has totally changed my life,” said Rathbone. “Because of this I have developed a personal relationship with my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. I have learned that a person can have lots of friends but family sticks by you. We would not have made it through this journey without the help that our family gave to us — watching our girls, fixing meals, general house cleaning, helping to change bandages and rides to numerous appointments. A person can have lots of material things but nothing compares to watching your kids grow.”

“Crabtree is an awesome community,” she added. “Not only were they concerned with my health, but with how my girls were and how Robert was holding up. Robert was and is my rock; without him I would have never made it.”

Both of Rathbone’s daughters were young when she got sick — Anna was 5 and Sara was 2.

“They know when I'm stressed and they help me pray through it,” said Rathbone. “They are my reason for fighting this fight. I will live to see them get married and have kids of their own.”

Rathbone has developed an eagerness to share her story with others in the hopes of informing and educating them.

“Many people think that it is cool to be tan and that tanning beds themselves are safer than lying out in the sun. False!” said Rathbone. “We must use sunscreen to protect our largest organ — our skin. A lot of people think, ‘Oh it’s just skin cancer.’ Friends, skin cancer is deadly.”

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a group in the World Healthy Organization, added ultraviolet (UV) tanning beds and lamps to the list of the most dangerous forms of cancer-causing radiation.

Research shows that tanning beds are especially dangerous for young people — those under 30 who use a tanning bed increase their lifetime risk of melanoma by 75 percent.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 76,100 people will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2014, and 9,710 are expected to die from it.

“The surgeries and chemotherapy have left me with some hindering health issues,” said Rathbone. “But I am alive and able to share and educate, so it’s worth it. Melanoma is a truly very scary disease, but God is ultimately in control. Just do as your doctors advise, get your scans and yearly skin checks, and keep looking to heaven.”

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