In March 2013, I discovered what I thought was a blister on my elbow. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but when it didn’t disappear after a couple of weeks, I made an appointment with my family dermatologist to have it checked. Although I didn’t think the blister was serious, I thought it best to err on the side of caution. I knew it was important to be aware of any new or changing skin lesions that might be cancerous or precancerous. Cancer had already left an indelible mark on my family. My husband of 47 years had died from liver cancer in 2012, and after being treated for breast cancer many years before, I knew the importance of early detection. After examining my blister, which was raised and had small red veins shooting through it, my doctor told me she suspected it was a form of skin cancer and referred me to an oncologist who agreed it did look suspicious and proceeded to order a biopsy. A Shocking Diagnosis My daughter, Glorianne, went with me to the oncologist’s office to receive the results of my biopsy, and we were both shocked when my doctor said I had Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer, and that it was incurable. I remember the doctor telling Glorianne I was terminally ill, and I started to cry. I never expected to receive such a dire diagnosis, and I desperately wished my husband could have been there with me to offer his love and support. I was unfamiliar with Merkel cell carcinoma, but learned through the American Cancer Society that it affects 1,600 people in the United States each year, and that number is growing. Risk factors include sun exposure, fair skin, a weakened immune system, and being 65 and older. Over the next few days, I had time to think about my diagnosis and I knew that despite my doctor’s prognosis, I still had a lot of living left to do. I was only 65, and I was looking forward to seeing my daughter get married and my grandson graduate from high school. I also love to travel, and there were many places on my bucket list that I had yet to visit. After undergoing a surgical procedure to remove the blister, and subsequent radiation, my tumor seemed to stabilize, but when I went back for a check-up in 2015, I learned the cancer had spread with a vengeance and was now in my liver, lungs and both forearms. Refusing to Become a Statistic At that time, the only treatment option available to me was chemotherapy, which my doctor said might only extend my life by a couple of months. I refused to accept that chemotherapy was the only option and I turned to the internet to begin researching possible treatments. I had heard about clinical trials and research studies that tested new methods of treating cancer, and wondered if I might qualify for a study. At that point, I felt I had nothing to lose. I found the website clinicaltrials.gov and saw there were several research studies that focused on the type of cancer I had. One was being conducted at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, which is approximately two and a half hours from my home. Doctors were testing an experimental immunotherapy drug on patients with advanced Merkel cell carcinoma, and I thought it sounded hopeful. I decided to see if I would qualify to participate in the clinical trial. I spoke with my oncologist and after undergoing a battery of tests including blood work, X-rays and a second biopsy to confirm my diagnosis, I learned I did meet the qualifications to participate in the clinical trial. Even better, Medicare covered most of the costs associated with participating in a clinical trial, so I didn’t need to worry about paying out of pocket. Preparing for the Clinical Trial Before entering the study, I was required to go through a process called informed consent that explains the procedures involved in the study, reviews the benefits and risks, and offers patients an opportunity to ask questions. I knew when I signed up for the research study that there were possible side effects, and that the treatment might not work. But I wasn’t scared. My diagnosis was already scary. I looked at the study as offering me the possibility of a second chance. In August 2013, I began the clinical trial under the direction of Dr. Philip Friedlander, an oncologist at Mt. Sinai. He explained to me that the study focused on the use of immunotherapy, a type of cancer treatment designed to boost the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer. Rather than using an external treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation, immunotherapy attempts to rally the patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells. For patients like me, who have been diagnosed with an incurable or recurrent form of cancer, immunotherapy—if successful—is nothing short of miraculous. By the time I started the clinical trial, my cancer had spread to my heart and lungs. I was given an experimental drug intravenously every three weeks for a 15-month period and imaging scans every 2 to 3 months. At the end of the clinical trial, I got the miraculous news I wanted: My cancer was in remission. Savoring a Second Chance at Life I still continue to receive scans every three months and, remarkably, have seen the tumors in my liver disappear, and the marshmallow-sized tumor in my arm shrink. Even better, there’s no current sign of cancer activity. All clinical trials come with potential side effects, and while at first I did have a rash that my doctor treated with prednisone, as well as difficulty managing my blood sugars, I feel those were minor annoyances in comparison to being given a second chance at life. Buoyed by my positive results, I recently enrolled in a post-treatment research study that’s tracking the long-term results of patients who have been treated with immunotherapy. I have also continued my travels with family and friends to different locations throughout the United States. I recently had a wonderful day with my family in Pennsylvania and plan to go to Vermont soon to see the fall foliage. I savor every day and hope to go on a cruise next year. One of the most important lessons I learned from my health scare is the importance of being your own health advocate and seeking out alternative treatments, along with second—or even third—opinions. Today, I’m 69 years old and enjoying life to the fullest. I’ve told Dr. Friedlander I know I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t taken a chance and volunteered for a clinical trial.