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Is It Worth a Tan?

Center Grove Teacher Shares Battle with Melanoma, Raising Awareness and Prevention

Writer  /   Suzanne Huntzinger
Photographer  /  Brian Brosmer

Lazy summer days by the pool, spring break trips to the beach, playing out in the yard on a beautiful summer day. Like many of us, Kelly Bowser, 8th Grade Special Education teacher at Center Grove Middle School North, did all that and soaked up the sun as a kid.

“I thought I looked better with a tan,” she says.

But Bowser changed her mind after she was diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, in 2008. Ironically, the diagnosis came not long after she had used a tanning bed. Bowser noticed a dark spot smaller than the size of an eraser on her arm near her elbow. Doctors diagnosed it as Stage 0 melanoma, which means the cancerous cells are confined to the area and no spreading has occurred. Doctors removed the spot and told Bowser she had a 100 percent chance of no recurrence.

Then in 2015, Bowser noticed two new spots on each side of the original spot. Tests revealed that both spots were melanoma. Her doctors recommended the removal of the spots, but at her daughter Hannah’s urging, she got a second opinion to see if more treatment should be done. Bowser sought the help of the melanoma experts at Simon Cancer Center, and her new doctors performed a sentinel lymph node biopsy, revealing that one node tested positive for melanoma.

With lymph node involvement, Bowser’s melanoma was diagnosed at Stage 3A. A lymph node dissection surgery followed, removing 27 lymph nodes, but all were cancer free. During recovery from the lymph node surgery, she had to wear a drain and a bag. She then began a one year course of interferon immunotherapy in April of 2016. The immunotherapy treatment decreases risk for recurrence by 10 percent. The protocol was grueling, requiring her to have treatments five days a week for a month. She also began a course of treatment in May of 2016, requiring her to self-administer injections three days a week. Understandably, Bowser took a chunk of that semester off school.

Nearing the end of her treatment course, Bowser continues to fight through all the unpleasant side effects like thinning hair, fatigue, fever and chills.

“I go to work through all of it,” she says. “But it’s been the toughest year of my life.”

Although her treatment is complete in April, Bowser isn’t letting her guard down on the fight. In the short term, she’ll return to the doctor for a PET scan in April and hope for the all clear. After that, she expects to have regular checkups. The regular monitoring is important because even with the immunotherapy treatment, Bowser has a 30 percent chance that the melanoma can recur. In the meantime, Bowser says, “I’m taking sun safety seriously. I’m going to make sure my children and grandchildren get checked because some spots aren’t seen until it’s too late.”

While Bowser has an overall positive prognosis, she is on a mission to raise awareness about melanoma and hopefully prevent the disease from occurring in others. Her message is simple.

“Wear your sunscreen, and stay away from tanning beds,” Bowser says.

She also has advice for those who’ve been recently diagnosed with melanoma or are currently going through treatment.

“Do your homework about your diagnosis, and most of all, stay hopeful, be positive and pray a lot,” she says.

About Suzanne Huntzinger

Suzanne Huntzinger has a journalism degree from IU and has lived in the Geist community for 18 years.

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