Carla Rake: My Journey to Becoming a Cancer Prevention Advocate

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"I trust my Fox Chase team with my life. If it were not for them, I don’t know what I would do. I also make sure to remind others that melanoma can be prevented—it just takes effort."

— Carla Rake

Growing up in the 1980’s and 90’s, sunscreen was not a priority. I used to love to lay out in the sun, covered in baby oil, getting that ‘perfect tan.’ As I grew a little older, I discovered tanning beds. I would go to the tanning salon as often as three per week, to get some color and maintain my sun-kissed glow year round. I often took vacations to tropical and beach settings so I could stay tan and look healthy.

Fast forward to  September 2013. I was watching TV with my daughter, Kayla, and my son, Jalen, when I overheard a commercial about the importance of watching your moles, especially if they seem to be changing. I had a mole on my abdomen that had changed, and I thought maybe I should get a dermatologist to look at it. I went to a dermatologist who did a biopsy, and when he later requested that I return to his office, I knew something was seriously wrong. The dermatologist told me I had melanoma. I have to admit, I didn’t really know what that meant. I thought I would have a quick procedure done in the doctor’s office to remove the mole. I quickly learned that is not the case.

Educating Myself to Prepare for Treatment

Carla with Dr. Jeffrey Farma, her family, and Fox Chase staff members at Miles for Melanoma 2015.Carla with Dr. Jeffrey Farma, her family, and Fox Chase staff members at Miles for Melanoma 2015.My dermatologist said I needed to go to a comprehensive cancer center such as Fox Chase. He referred me to Jeffrey Farma, MD, FACS, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase, who he described as the best doctor in the area to treat melanoma. In the few days between learning my diagnosis and my first appointment with Dr. Farma, I looked up melanoma on the internet to learn more about it and about Fox Chase. I read the patient testimonials on the Fox Chase website and immediately felt more comfortable. I knew I would be in good hands.

Dr. Farma was incredibly caring and understanding, and I had a feeling that he would take good care of me. He was knowledgeable about my disease and explained that there are different stages of melanoma. That October, Dr. Farma performed a wide excision and sentinel node biopsy to remove the cancerous tissue and ensure it didn’t spread further. He was somewhat optimistic that the cancer had not spread, but after a PET scan, a CAT scan, and other testing, the pathology report indicated that it unfortunately had spread to my lymph nodes. This required an additional surgery called a groin dissection to remove all of my lymph nodes. At that point, I was diagnosed stage 3A melanoma.

Adjusting to a New Normal 

The second surgery was more challenging than the first one. After spending a couple of days in the hospital, I was discharged with stitches, two drains in my leg and I was in a lot of pain. I had a home health nurse come to my house every day for approximately three months during my recovery. I also developed severe swelling, called lymphedema, in my left leg as a result of having my lymph nodes removed. I had to start wearing a garment to control the swelling. I was required to take a break from working my job as an occupational therapist for 12 weeks. During that time, I also had to return to the hospital for treatment of an infection. 

I was released to go back to work right after Christmas, but my journey was far from over. My drug therapy, called immunotherapy, began in mid-January. It was recommended by my medical oncologist at Fox Chase, as the next step in my treatment. She spent a lot of time with me and answered all of my questions and concerns. I also met with nurse practitioner Jill Anne Seely, who could help me relax when I thought every single mole on my body was suspicious. She assured me that it was not. My children, which were just in 5th and 7th grades at the time, played a huge role in my life as we all adjusted to these changes. Having my family as a support system helped immensely.

I had every side effect possible, it seemed, when I started immunotherapy with Interferon, and I could tolerate it for only three weeks. During that time I continued to work full time and went for treatment after work. I also had physical therapy at Fox Chase for several months to help manage the lymphedema. Then in December 2016, I had a lymphovenous bypass to alleviate the lymphedema in my left leg. I would have to do physical therapy in the months to come to help manage the condition.

Becoming an Advocate for Skin Cancer Prevention

Since my diagnosis and treatment, I see my oncologists and dermatologist every six months and my primary care doctor every three months. I’ve been fortunate to have no recurrence of melanoma but did have a basal cell carcinoma removed. I now spend a tremendous amount of time educating, supporting, and fundraising for melanoma. My family has become a ‘sun-smart’ family since I was diagnosed and treated for melanoma. We wear hats, seek the shade, and use sun block. That’s a big change since the days when I would go to the tanning salon as often as three times a week and take vacations at tropical and beach locations to maintain my tan.

Carla with her familyCarla with her familyIn August 2015, my family and I participated in the first annual Miles for Melanoma at the Philadelphia Zoo, and I have participated in numerous 5K races and walks to raise funds and awareness about melanoma. And, 2016 was a big year for me: I attended the Day on the Hill event in Washington, D.C. where we lobbied members of Congress and the Senate about the importance of funding for melanoma, and was also honored with the Courage Award at the Melanoma Research Foundation Gala in Philadelphia. In the summer of 2016, my family was chosen to spend a week at Tina’s Place in Michigan, a retreat/vacation spot for patients with stage 3 and 4 melanoma.

I trust my Fox Chase team with my life. If it were not for them, I don’t know what I would do. I also make sure to remind others that melanoma can be prevented—it just takes effort. One of the blessings that have come out of this ordeal is meeting other melanoma warriors who have gone through similar journeys. Together, we hope to make a difference.

Learn more about how to keep your skin safe during sunny months and learn more about skin cancer treatment at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

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