The pace started out slowly, the sound of running shoes striking the pavement with steady rhythm.
Stacey Yount had to remind herself to take it easy. This was her first run since surgery to remove two cancerous lymph nodes from her groin, melanoma that had developed and spread.
When Yount was diagnosed with melanoma earlier this year, so many fears swirled around her. What was the treatment going to do to her? How was she going to feel after chemotherapy? Was she going to die?
But on top of that, she worried that she would have to give up one of her favorite activities, that she would never feel normal again.
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“When you get really sick, the greatest feeling is to have a moment when you feel normal. Whether it’s five minutes or five hours or five days. Whatever it is, the gift of feeling normal is incredible,” Yount said.
Running served as a panacea to Yount. She ran when she feels good. She grabbed her shoes when it had been a rough week at work or when she needed a mental boost.
So that first run after surgery was proof that the cancer hadn’t beaten her.
“I felt so honored and excited, that it was a privilege to run. That gave me a lot of joy for it,” she said. “But in the same sense, I was really frustrated. I couldn’t run more than a quarter of a mile. I really walked most of it.”
Yount had first been diagnosed with early stages melanoma in 2014. She and her husband, Mark, had been in Mexico on vacation with friends.
While lounging by the pool, a friend pointed out a mole on her back, asking if had ever been looked at.
With a pale skin tone, Young had scheduled regular skin examinations with her doctor every few years. She had never had a problem, and didn’t think that this new mole would be any different.
I heard people say ‘You’re a fighter, you’re being a survivor.’ No, I’m not. I’m just a person. I think most people respond with positivity to really dark moments in their lives. I’m not much different than what anybody else would be.
But during an appointment following the vacation, her dermatologist checked the spot and surmised that it was likely melanoma. Tests confirmed that it was cancerous, though it had been caught in its earliest stage. Yount needed surgery to have the cancerous mole and skin around it removed, but avoided chemotherapy and radiation.
Yount had her surgery, what she refers to as her “shark bite,” due to the large amount of skin they had to cut to ensure all cancer was gone.
At that stage, melanoma is slow-growing. Assuming the tissue around the mole was clear of cancer cells, it was 98 percent likely that the melanoma would not come back.
For more than a year, Yount had no indications that the cancer had returned. Her regular blood work and check-ups all came up clear, and she felt as healthy as she ever had.
Around the same time she was diagnosed, she decided to start running.
She had run track in high school, but never liked it very much. When possible, she avoided it for other forms of exercise such as fitness classes and biking.
But about two years ago, Yount decided to make a change. She’d try running one more time.
“It was slow at first. But my sister-in-law and I did a 5K, and I knew I wouldn’t die,” she said, laughing. “Then it became one goal after another.”
Yount completed a six-mile race, and a sprint triathlon. The next logical step was training for a half-marathon. She and her running partner Jean Ramsey slowly pushed through the miles, and in November, completed the Indianapolis Monumental Half-Marathon. Young finished in 2 hours 33 minutes 5 seconds.
“We ran the whole thing. It was wonderful; I was so happy,” she said.
But even in the ecstasy of meeting her goal, something wasn’t right with Yount. In the days following the half-marathon, she couldn’t seem to shake her soreness and fatigue. Since it was her first half-marathon, she assumed it was simply her body slowly bouncing back.
“A lot of people had told me that you just don’t feel right afterwards. Some people said that it would feel like the flu,” Yount said. “I honestly didn’t think much of it.”
But the malaise persisted for a week, then longer. Yount finally went to see her doctor, who told her such a long recovery was not normal. Searching for a cause, her doctor ordered blood draws and other tests to determine what was wrong.
All of the tests came back normal.
“I was healthier than I’d been in 10 years, so everything looked like it was fine,” Yount said. “But we kept testing, because it had to be something.”
She was certain that it was a virus, and insists that cancer wasn’t even on her mind. But nearly a month after first going to see her doctor, Yount felt a lump in her groin area. A computerized tomography scan showed that it was a swollen lymph node.
Even then, she convinced herself it was a response to a virus of some kind.
“I was still sure that everything was fine,” she said. “We had a biopsy done, and looking back, the doctor in the room knew that something was wrong. But I thought everything was fine. When the oncologist I was referred to wanted me to come to the office, I wouldn’t. I was fine! Just call me.”
On Dec. 23, in the middle of cooking for the Christmas holiday, her oncologist called. He told her that it was cancer, and that it was in her lymph nodes.
They didn’t yet know how many, or how extensive. But it had spread from wherever it started.
Yount was referred to oncologist Dr. Erika Rager at Franciscan Health Indianapolis for more intensive scans and testing, which showed the melanoma had spread to one lymph node.
Compounding the fear of Stage III cancer itself was knowing what her treatment would be. In a chilling coincidence, Yount’s father, Charles Hallam, was diagnosed with Stage 3 melanoma in early 2015.
She had accompanied Hallam to his doctor’s appointments. She knew that his condition required multiple surgeries, though he opted against any additional treatment.
“I knew what this was going to look like afterwards. With a mole, they just remove it. With melanoma, they have to take a large amount,” she said. “I knew it was going to be significant.”
In discussions with her patient, Rager could tell Yount was concerned about the surgeries she faced. So she offered a suggestion. Dr. Juliana E. Meyer, a melanoma surgeon and director of the Melanoma Clinic at Franciscan Health Indianapolis Cancer Center, had just started using a new surgical procedure called videoscopic inguinal lymphadenectomy.
Instead of a large open incision to remove the lymph nodes, surgeons could make small cuts, insert a videoscope and approach the lymph nodes in a more manageable way.
Meyer determined that Yount was an ideal candidate for the procedure.
“For Stacey, getting her back to running was really important to her. That’s really important in her approach to cancer treatment now that she has this outlet. She can feel as ‘normal’ as possible,” she said. “She was really motivated from a post-surgery healing standpoint to start running again. I looked at her, and thought this would really benefit her.”
The surgery was completed in January. Almost as soon as it was done, Yount was pestering Meyer about being able to run again. Every time there was a check-up or doctor’s visit, it was one of her first questions.
Meyer repeatedly told her to not let her exuberance cause additional damage. Start by walking — to the kitchen, to the mailbox, a quarter mile, she said.
“She kept reminding me that even through the surface wasn’t scarred, it was still a very invasive surgery underneath,” Yount said.
But by early February, Yount received the OK she had been itching to hear. She could finally run — slowly — again. By the end of the month, she took part in a competitive trail race.
Around the same time, Yount started follow-up treatment to contain her cancer.
With the cancer having spread, her medical team was focused on finding the right combination of chemotherapy that gave her the best chance to contain the cancer without adverse side effects.
Yount had formerly worked in the medical research field helping manage clinical trials. Previously in her career, she had worked in oncology.
Her background proved to be an asset as she embarked on her treatment. As soon as she was diagnosed, Yount started researching potential drugs, medications and clinical trials.
“I started trying to find a clinical trial. I was convinced I would find one, because there are thousands out there,” she said. “But what I found was, with my stage of cancer, it wasn’t Stage 4, and I couldn’t get one.
Yount spent hundreds of hours on the phone and online trying to find a trial that would accept her or any doctors that would prescribe clinical trial drugs to her.
Finally, her oncologist, Dr. Samir Ahmed, warned her not to wait any longer to start treatment. Melanoma can come back quickly and aggressively after surgery, so it was in her best interest to begin immediately.
Ahmed placed her on a regiment of Yervoy, a drug designed for Stage 3 melanoma patients. The medication boosts the immune system, jump-starting the body’s own defenses to ideally attack the cancer.
She completed two rounds of treatment before she suffered such a severe immune response that she ended up in the hospital for five days. Her body attacked her colon.
Before being admitted to the hospital, the drugs had left her seriously fatigued, to the point where she couldn’t really do anything but lay down.
Her friends surrounded her with support during the days when the medication wiped her out physically and emotionally. One day, they had a pajama-party day, laying on the floor in comfy clothing and watching movies together. Yount’s two daughters, Morgan, 12, and Shelby, 14, took part too.
Mark Yount stayed in the hospital the entire five days she was recovering after her second round of treatment.
On Memorial Day weekend, once the treatments were done and Yount felt healthy enough to celebrate, the family threw a massive party. A band was booked, tables of food were set up and people reveled in her making it through this first ordeal.
“That was a late night,” she said.
Because her cancer is Stage 3, Yount will live with the specter of melanoma indefinitely. She has PET scans done every three months, though to this point she remains cancer-free.
Yount knows the odds of a recurrence are high. Once melanoma gets into the lymph nodes, it has a high risk of recurrence, according to the AIM at Melanoma Foundation.
Both the infected lymph node and the melanoma tumor were only 5 centimeters wide. That indicates that Yount’s body had been fighting hard against it. She expects that to continue.
“I’ve never lived with fear before. At this point, it’s a battle with my brain to not be afraid of it coming back,” she said. “I believe it’s never coming back.”
Running remains an important aspect, not only of her own recreation, but in helping her body fight against disease. The more physically fit she is, the more strength her immune system will have in warding off cancerous cells.
Yount and her family have switched to eating mostly organic foods. She wears heavy SPF 70 sunscreen any time she’s in the sun.
“I love the sun. I love being outside. I love being in the water. But I have to watch that,” she said.
Running has become a secondary concern as more pressing, life-altering focuses have dominated Yount’s life. But her plan is to start doing events and races again.
She is training for the Monumental Marathon again, eying the 13.1-mile race in early November. To this point, she’s up to 7½ miles, running five of those. Her goal is to be able to run the entire race.
“My goal before all of this was to do a marathon and a half-Ironman this year. That’s out now. So I guess I’ll do that next year,” she said.
Yount has tried to approach her disease in a positive, matter-of-fact way. The experience has been difficult so far, and it could get worse. But like the other challenges in her life, she’s opted to maintain an attitude that she will overcome.
“Once you get to a certain point, you don’t have a choice but to be positive,” she said.
Type of cancer: Melanoma
Date diagnosed: First time, 2014; second time, December 2015.
Treatment: Surgery to remove two lymph nodes; chemotherapy
What has cancer taught you?
It taught me that I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was. It also taught me to cherish every moment of my life.
How has cancer changed you?
It made me more courageous and determined to make a difference in the world somehow.
“I keep thinking that melanoma truly has been a gift to me. It has completely changed the way I think about my work and my life and my kids. It gives me a different reason to live.”
What would you tell someone just diagnosed with cancer?
Take it one step at a time. Take it one day at a time. Don’t allow your mind to think about what might happen tomorrow or the next day or the next day. Just take one decision and experience at a time. Remain positive. We’ve all gone through difficulties in our lives. The vast majority of situations turn out to be much better than you think they’re going to. They’re still difficult, it’s still very hard. But don’t allow yourself to assume the worst. Always believe that it will turn out for the best.