Each morning is a bright new day for Cathy McCoy, and she refuses to take it for granted.
“To me now, every day is a plus,” Cathy said with a gentle smile.
Yet the road to such serenity has hardly been a smooth one.
Years ago, while Cathy would have easily described herself as a cancer survivor, it had yet to truly impact her life. Diagnosed, and successfully treated, for melanoma sites on her skin three times, Cathy was just grateful she had seemingly caught the disease early.
But that all changed last summer after Cathy got to witness her only son get married in a beautiful ceremony at Biltmore. With the celebration over and all seemingly right with the world, Cathy began experiencing pain in her side.
Cathy went to see her primary care physician and was well on her way to have gall bladder surgery, when a physician found something that didn’t quite add up.
“He said ‘There is definitely something going on and I don’t think it’s the gall bladder,’” Cathy said she was told.
Tests were done. The results were inconclusive and the recommendation was made to wait a month
and test again.
That’s when Cathy decided “I’m not waiting a month.” She told her primary care doctor she wanted to go immediately to Vanderbilt.
At Vanderbilt, her concerns were confirmed, and things could not have looked bleaker. Cathy was diagnosed with Stage 4 Melanoma. The disease she thought she had beaten was back with a vengeance. She had masses on her pancreas, liver and several lymph nodes. What she saw as her last possible hope, Whipple surgery, was deemed inappropriate. And without treatment, she was given just 6 months to live.
But hope reemerged in the form of a clinical trial. The immunotherapy trial, available in Atlanta and utilizing the drugs Nivolumab and Ipilimumab, offered no promises. In fact, no one had as yet been able to tolerate the treatment for the entire 12 weeks required.
Side effects might range from uncomfortable to life threatening. Still, Cathy and husband Joe felt they had no choice. “I thought, if I can help somebody else, I’m going to do this,” she said.
And when the couple was advised to take the paperwork home before they decided on the trial, Cathy said Joe told the nurse practitioner “We don’t need to take it home. Where do we sign? We’re doing this.”
The next several months were filled with highs and lows, interspersed with weekly visits to Atlanta for treatment. She struggled with rashes and an enlarged pituitary gland as a reaction to the drugs, but maintains that she believes she sailed through relatively unscathed.
“I didn’t lose my hair,” she pointed out matter-of-factly.
In February, once the treatment was complete, scans showed no more cancer in her body. Three months later, in May, Cathy went in again.
“My last scan showed no sign of cancer anywhere,” she said happily.
Cathy will continue to go in every three months for a year and a half. She hopes the cancer stays away – and that no other damage from the treatment emerges.
But in a way, Cathy says, she is in a good place no matter what.
“If it comes back tomorrow, I have been blessed,” she said.
She has a 9-month-old granddaughter she is grateful for every day. She treasures each and every moment with her 90-year-old mother. And she has learned how much her family and friends truly love her and how much her God watches over her.
Cathy also wants to share her story with any and all who will listen with the idea of helping others in similar situations.
And if she had one message to convey, she said, it would be this one.
“I want people to know that no matter how bad it gets, there is always hope.”