My Story: Cathy Milner Keeling

Sometimes telling and re-telling our stories is the only way to share the times in our lives that have caused us great pain so that it can be a great healing to someone else.
Skin cancer

Sometimes telling and re-telling our stories is the only way to share the times in our lives that have caused us great pain so that it can be a great healing to someone else. This Friday I am so pleased to to share the story of Cathy Milner Keeling. We met through the UV Skinz Facebook page. When I asked her to share her story I sensed some hesitancy mixed with her willingness. She wasn’t sure that her story was “exciting” or “interesting” enough to share with the world. I disagree. ALL stories, ALL experiences, ALL hardships are worth telling. You just never know the lives you will touch. When Rhonda began UV Skinz it was from an experience that shook her world to pieces. She shared those pieces with the world and now the legacy of Darren has inspired people all over the United States and the world to be more sun-safe and protect the skin we are in. For the sake of ourselves and our loved ones.

This is Cathy’s story.

Was tanning or sunbathing a significant factor in your development of Melanoma?

Sunbathing was definitely a factor in my melanoma. However, it was both unintentional (as a child) and intentional (as a teenager). The majority of my childhood was spent growing up in Hawaii and New Mexico. I grew up in the sun. I am very fair-skinned and my parents admit that back then they had never even heard of sunblock. So, I do remember having a lot of sunburns as a child. When I was a teenager sunbathing was very popular. Even though I was fair-skinned, blonde, and full of freckles, I was determined to tan like all of my friends and/or family members that were not fair-skinned. I remember having multiple severe burns with blisters, sun poisoning, etc…looking back now, I have no idea what I was thinking. I never once tanned…I just burned.

How did your diagnosis change your life?

I was 26 years old when I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in my upper left arm. My dermatologist called me with the news while I was in the middle of a department store shopping. She told me I would have to have surgery right away, as well as a bunch of other tests. I was shocked and scared, to say the least. It was right before Thanksgiving and I was planning on going to visit my family in Nebraska for the holiday. The following weeks after that phone call were kind of surreal to me. I felt like I was having an “out of body” experience…like I was watching all of this happen to someone else rather than it happening to me. I had several appointments with the surgeon, endless blood tests, and the most painful test…where they injected the sight of my melanoma with a dye and watched it with a CT scan so they could map it to the nearest lymph nodes. One of the blood tests that the surgeon ordered actually helped us discover that I also have Von Willebrand’s Disease…it is a blood disorder which affects the clotting of your blood…good thing to know when you’re about to have surgery! The surgeon said it was ok for me to still take my planned trip to Nebraska and schedule the surgery for when I returned. I was surrounded by family…my mother, Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, etc…and that’s when it hit me…that this was happening TO me and it was pretty serious. It hit me while watching my family. I remembered so many family gatherings from the past like I was having flash backs…watching everyone grow up, cousins starting their own families, Aunts and Uncles enjoying grandkids. And here I was, 26, single, no children…I realized then that I was facing something that could end my life and there would be nothing of me left behind. That’s when I broke down and the real fear set in. But that was also the changing point for me and for my life. I just knew (a gut feeling) that everything was going to be fine, that I would get through this. I had the surgery to remove the melanoma as well as lymph node biopsies under my left arm pit. I was amazed at the amount of pain that caused! I went through everything with a sense of ‘calm’ knowing and truly believing that everything was going to be ok. And sure enough, the biopsies of my lymph nodes all came back with no evidence of melanoma. And all of the margins tested clear from the excision in my left arm. I was lucky. But I do not take it for granted. To this day, I eat healthier and I take care of my body…two things I never thought twice about before. That is a good way that melanoma changed my life.

The bad way it changed my life…I constantly live in fear…that one day I will have a reoccurrence. I fear the sun, but I love the outdoors. I worry…a lot. If I’m outside on a sunny day I constantly worry if I have enough sun block on, if my clothing is covering me up enough. I end up not doing a lot of outdoor things if I am not sure that there will be somewhere shady I can sit. I not only worry about me, but I also worry about my 5 year old son…all the same worries. Melanoma is ALWAYS in the back of my mind. My scars a constant reminder of what can happen. A couple of years ago, I was having CT scans and MRI’s of my brain done because my dermatologist was worried that I had all of the symptoms of a reoccurrence…major abdominal issues, increase in migraines, significant weight loss. Luckily nothing showed up. But it was a scary reminder of how quickly this can come back. Because of my fair skin, and the endless amounts of freckles on my body, this fear will never go away. My diagnosis was in 2003 and I still see a dermatologist every 6 months…more often if I’ve had a biopsy that came back pre-cancerous.

Is there an inspirational quote or song that gives you inspiration?

A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, – act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sand of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solenm main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

When I talked about how I came to the realization that this melanoma could end my life and I would be leaving nothing behind…that was the worst fear. I had always loved this poem and had quotes from it at my desk at work even before my diagnosis. It became even more special to me after I was diagnosed. Reading this poem brought me peace because I knew I couldn’t leave this world without leaving my “footprints on the sand of time.” For the first time, I knew I wanted to get married, have children, create my own family. This poem gave me the strength to say (and truly believe) “there is no way this melanoma is going to kill me…I have too much life left to live” and I needed to leave my footprints…

Today I am happily married and I have the most amazing son that will be turning 5 this month. I have started my footprints…

What stage are you in; cured or currently battling Melanoma?

I am cured, which I thank God for every day! Since all of the biopsies of my lymph nodes came back with no evidence of melanoma, and all the margins of the excision site came back clear, it was determined that it had not spread. I know I was lucky. I know what melanoma can do. And although I did not have to go through chemo or anything like that, the surgery itself was not a piece of cake. The surgeon and my dermatologist warned me that a “pretty good-sized chunk” of my skin was going to be removed and that I would have a “disfiguring” scar. And they were right. My arm at the site of the scar is disfigured. I have about a two-inch scar on the outside of my left arm. And then another two-inch scar under my armpit where my lymph nodes were biopsied. The pain after my surgery was unbelievable. I was out of work for almost two weeks. And the scar under my armpit to this day causes me pain as I regularly deal with lymphedema, which is extremely painful.

What is the best advice you can give to someone who thinks that skin cancer can’t happen to them?

DON’T be so naïve! When I was getting all of my sunburns growing up, there was not a lot of education out there about skin cancer and melanoma. But now there is TONS of education out there about it…so for someone to think that it can’t happen to them, or to believe they’ll never get it because they “don’t burn, they just tan” is just ridiculous! I cringe when I see people going to tanning salons, or laying out in the sun, or going out without putting sunblock on, and I just want to grab them by their arms, shake them, and yell “LOOK AT ME!! I had melanoma and I was one of the lucky ones! You might not be so lucky!” I know that sounds kind of harsh, and drastic maybe, but I see it every day, and it’s so frustrating! With all of the education out there now about melanoma, I don’t understand why people do those things. It hurts the most when it’s my own family or friends. When they laugh or shrug off, their latest bad sunburn I get very sad. I want them to learn from me and what I went through. And when they don’t, I just pray for them that someday they are not diagnosed with skin cancer. I wish they would use me as an example and realize that they do not want to go through what I went through. I had malignant melanoma and I survived…that is great, yes…but the fear that a cancer diagnosis puts in you…that is not great…and I don’t want anyone to go through that…especially when it’s cancer that is preventable.