Melanoma survivor’s unlikely recovery leads to lifestyle changes
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Cancer of all kinds affects local residents on a daily basis. Through a month-long weekly series, the Sun-Gazette will speak with survivors of some of the most common forms of cancer locally. The paper realizes that not all cancer survivors share the same experiences and opinions as those featured in this series, which continues on Tuesdays through Oct. 31.)
Finishing up the last semester of college and simultaneously preparing for a June wedding might seem exciting, if a little daunting.
For Sharon Belvin, health and wellness educator for UPMC Susquehanna, it was a whirlwind of stress and fear.
Belvin was a runner and noticed breathing was becoming more difficult for her rather than getting easier as she got used to her pace.
“It got to the point I was huffing and puffing just walking around,” she said.
She said time after time health providers passed her breathing trouble off as colds, pneumonia or bronchitis. But, in March of 2004, Belvin noticed a mass below her left collar bone and feared breast cancer.
Instead, a biopsy revealed stage 4 melanoma, an aggressive skin cancer which already had spread to her lungs.
“At one point, I had a tumor in my lung the size of a football,” Belvin recalled.
She started chemotherapy almost immediately. Though she went through with her wedding, she said she “had to scale things back” immensely.
Chemo continued through fall of 2004, but the tumors kept growing and spreading, Belvin said.
When doctors discovered a tumor in her brain, it became the top priority. They used stereotactic radiosurgery, a non-invasive therapy using concentrated radiation to precisely target brain tumors, she said, and it worked.
“It was the first bit of good news I’d gotten in a long time,” Belvin said.
Despite defeating the brain tumor, chemo was no longer an option for Belvin and the melanoma continued to spread throughout her lungs and lymph nodes.
She and her newlywed husband had not gone on their honeymoon because of treatment. Wanting to go on vacation, doctors told her, ” ‘If you’re going to travel, do it now,’ “ she said.
“They didn’t know how sick I was going to get,” Belvin said. “I was getting sicker and sicker.”
Over the summer of 2005, they want on a cruise — but, between the constant bad news, neuropathy and extreme weight gain, Belvin said she felt awful the entire time.
“I ate my feelings during treatment,” Belvin said with a chuckle, adding that she had peaked around 350 pounds.
In the fall of 2005, she was asked to participate in a clinical trial for a type of immunotherapy that kick-starts the body’s immune system into fighting off cancer cells more effectively.
“You never know what might work, so it was an easy decision for me,” she said.
The treatment involved 90-minute infusions and injections in Belvin’s leg. After completing four rounds of the treatment, she had a scan to see how immunotherapy was working. Though going through with the treatment was an easy decision, having some faith in it was a little harder.
“I expected more of the same (bad news),” Belvin said. “But the radiologist had never seen anything like it. He had to verify he’d grabbed the right labs. My tumors had shrunk by 60 percent in that first round.”
And the pattern continued. Every time Belvin returned, her tumors got smaller and smaller. Eventually, there was no sign of disease at all, she said.
Surviving stage 4 melanoma was the first in a series of unlikely events in Belvin’s life.
Shortly after her victory, she became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy baby girl, a feat she and her husband thought impossible after her long run of intensive treatment and because of her weight. Then, she became pregnant again, this time with a baby boy. Her children are now 7 and 9.
Somewhere along the way, Belvin was told something life-changing.
“Someone told me, ‘Sharon, you defeated stage 4 cancer. That wasn’t supposed to happen. You got pregnant and gave birth to two healthy children. That really wasn’t supposed to happen. And one day, you are going to have to voluntarily say goodbye to those children due to a lifestyle-induced illness. That is not supposed to happen,’ “ Belvin said. “That was the wake-up call I needed.”
Belvin and her husband started exercising and eating healthier for the sake of their kids. In the past several years since moving to Williamsport, Belvin has lost about 170 pounds and now helps other people live healthier, more active lives.
“The life I lead now is truly to be as happy as I can be and as healthy as I can be for as long as I can be,” Belvin said. “At the end of the day, I want to see my grandbabies. I plan to annoy my high school sweetheart until we’re old and gray. I want to experience all that. I don’t want to give that up any time soon.”