Patient Name : Ellen Demetree
Ellen Demetree could be found on the golf course with her dad, the pharmacist and scratch handicap golfer, on any given day of her childhood. At age twelve, Ellen found her own athletic love – tennis. After church on Sunday, Ellen and her father would play a round of golf and then a few sets of tennis before stopping for the day. They played a couple sets of tennis a week and every night after dinner during the summer. Ellen literally grew up outside under the Fort Pierce sun.
Just before Ellen’s sixteenth birthday, her father discovered he had melanoma. He traveled to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Orlando in Houston for experimental treatment. Three years later, when he took Ellen to college, it appeared he had won his difficult battle and by Christmas, all the worries had subsided. But by January, a flashing light that appeared in his eye revealed the melanoma had spread to his brain. Ellen’s father died the summer after her first year of college.
Ellen fled the sun she had once loved and gave up her position on the college tennis team.
However, at twenty-four, she noticed a spot on her shoulder that just would not heal. She went to see her doctor and explained that she feared it was a basal cell carcinoma, a common type of skin cancer. Surprised by her level of knowledge, he took the time to check her. He found another concerning spot behind her knee, invisible to her. “You need to see a dermatologist,” he advised. She did and the dermatologist agreed saying, “These both need to come off.” She had melanoma in situ, one of the earliest stages of the deadly disease that took her father’s life.
Two years later and newly pregnant, Ellen noticed a mole changing before her eyes. When the pathologist returned the results of the biopsy on the mole, she learned she had another melanoma in situ, with its removal it had no potential to spread. Ellen took the advice to see a doctor regularly and went to a dermatologist four times a year for a skin scan. For thirteen years, they found nothing, until September 1999.
Ellen carried a lawn chair in each hand as she left her son’s soccer game. However, something felt odd, like her shirt had waded up under her arm. She set the chairs down and reached to straighten her shirt, but nothing was out of place. When she arrived home and went to slide her shirt off, her hand bumped into a knot under her arm. “My first thought wasn’t cancer. I thought I had an inflamed lymph node,” Ellen remembers thinking when she found the soft, half a ping-pong ball sized mass. She watched for a week and noticed no changes. Still concerned, she asked a friend who was a nurse to look at it. She advised she see a doctor. A couple of weeks later, Ellen had a needle aspiration.
As Ellen and her husband, Paul, pulled into their garage after the procedure, the phone rang. Ellen raced to answer it. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but you have breast cancer.” Ellen was right in the middle of final preparations for Women Play for T.I.M.E.’s tennis tournament held in October, to raise funds and awareness about breast cancer. She replied, “I don’t have time for breast cancer right now. Can it wait until next Wednesday?” But it could not.
Ellen began meeting with doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center Orlando not to raise awareness, but for her own fight. Her surgeon did not believe her mass was breast cancer, but removed it knowing it was definitely cancerous. The pathology report startled Ellen. It was malignant melanoma that formed completely under her skin without any discoloration or evidence on her skin. Her doctor said it had probably been growing for ten years or more.
Ellen immediately underwent a battery of tests revealing additional suspicious spots on her spleen and ovaries. The results of the following surgery were devastating – the melanoma had spread to her spleen – revealing a battle for her life against Stage IV melanoma. “I was gripped with a fear I had never known before,” Ellen says.
Clarence Brown, MD, President/CEO of MD Anderson – Orlando advised Ellen to consider the aggressive bio-chemo treatment administered at MD Anderson – Houston where three chemotherapy drugs kill everything living in the blood stream and two biological drugs promote the growth of new red and white blood cells and boost the immune system. “Paul and I researched every cancer treatment center. They all pointed to MD Anderson for the vast amount of research and the most successful results in melanoma,” Ellen explains.
After meeting with melanoma medical oncologist Agop Bedikian, MD, in Houston for several hours, Ellen chose the bio-chemo treatment. “Ten percent of the people who receive this treatment die from the treatment itself,” Ellen learned. Yet she felt it was her best option. The treatment that had been described as ‘one bad week a month’ had to be administered in a hospital. So on January 7, 2000, Ellen began the intense treatment. “I couldn’t be alone. I couldn’t do anything for myself,” she remembers. Twelve IV bags of different solutions dripped into her body at once, taking her to a state closer to death than life at times. Even a sinus infection became a life-threatening emergency for her. Paul stayed by her side, unplugging her IV tree from the wall for her hourly trips to the bathroom and comforting her after being sick at even the smell of food. Walking the required 150 steps a day was an accomplishment worth celebrating for the avid athlete.
The physical aspect of treatment was difficult, but the spiritual aspect amazed her. “I could see God answer prayers daily. I couldn’t help but believe. My faith journey helped me see where to go and how to fight this cancer; it was phenomenal. I learned to really trust God, to let Him be a part of everything; I would go through it again to have the stronger faith I have now.”
Ellen returned to Orlando on April 1, 2000 having successfully completed her treatment. She was declared a cancer survivor on April 30 having passed all of her scans with no traces of melanoma. She remains cancer free and an active member of Women Playing for T.I.M.E.