Deborah L. Hennessy
I began my battle with Melanoma cancer almost three years ago. Most people are of the mind set, ‘Melanoma is just skin caner,’ but this is not true. Melanoma is the second most aggressive tumor type, right behind pancreatic cancer. Sixty thousand Americans will be diagnosed this year, and eight thousand will die. In the United States, one person dies each hour of every day. Sadly, it is the number one killer of woman ages twenty-five to thirty-five.
Melanoma does not respond to traditional chemotherapy or radiation therapy as other cancers do. The only FDA approved treatment for Stage 4 MM (metastatic melanoma) is Interleukin or IL-2. It was developed thirty years ago. Since then, no great strides have been made in the treatment of melanoma. Only 26% of the people treated with IL-2 will experience a ‘partial response,’ with some shrinkage or no new growth (stable) of tumors. Only 7 percent will experience a complete response. Of these 7 percent, remission will last anywhere from four months to ten years, the average remission being 4.9 years.
In February 2006, I had the skin and some muscle removed from my right shoulder and a flap of skin from my back moved up to cover the large defect. I then had twenty-five radiation treatments. Within eight months, PET/CT scans showed the melanoma had progressed to Stage 4, invading both my lungs. I had part of my right lung removed. My medical oncologist at Johns Hopkins told me I had a life expectancy of six to nine months. Generally, Stage 4 does not exceed twelve months. There is no Stage 5.
This oncologist was not aggressive and exhibited a defeatist attitude. I knew I had to find my own path to wellness. I got busy educating myself and decided upon IL-2 treatments. I was admitted to Henrico Doctors Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, for intensive treatments. I was infused every eight hours with IL-2 and was able to tolerate ten treatments per week. I was very sick. To say IL-2 is toxic is an understatement. I have very little recollection of my treatment weeks; that is a blessing in itself. My husband or a dear friend watched over me along with intensive health care providers.
After my fourth week of IL-2, my oncologist determined it was too toxic for me to continue treatment. I challenged him with the idea…‘Melanoma is terminal, so what is more toxic…treatment or sure death from the disease?’ After pleading with him on two different visits, I sought out another oncologist.
Luckily, I found a Melanoma Specialist at UVA in Charlottesville, Virginia. He agreed to finish the IL-2 protocol, another two weeks of treatment. Each of the six weeks brought a twenty to thirty pound weight gain, burned blistered itchy skin, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, insomnia, hallucinations, renal failure, thrombocytopenia and rigors after each dose. Recovery from the side effects took an additional week.
I have PET/CT scans every three months. I was told my February 27, 2008 scans were clear, but I remained cautious. My May 28, 2008 PET/CT scans showed a three millimeter nodule/lesion in my right lung field, not where I had the lung resection. I returned to Richmond for a dedicated CT of my chest and an MRI of my brain. Three days later, without results, I left on a flight to Buffalo, NY.
On June 6th, my return flight from Buffalo was late. I found an empty seat and waited. After a few minutes, the gentleman next to me started to chat. I had not noticed his collar at first. His name is Father Stefan Starzynski. I told him I was a member of Prince of Peace Church in Chesapeake, Virginia. Father Stefan told me of his pilgrimage to the shrine of Father Nelson Baker and of his good works. He told me of the ‘visitation’ of a man he did not know to his room one night. Later he would come to find this was Father Baker who lived from 1842-1936. Although this is unusual, I did not find this impossible to believe. I know God does work in mysterious ways. My faith and beliefs have brought me this far, and I had no doubt of Father Stefan’s encounter. As I look back, I realize that was the first step in what was to happen; my mind and heart were open.
I told Father Stefan of my battle with cancer. I was not defeated or depressed. In fact, I have come to know many blessings because of cancer. I told him my faith had carried me through the hardest of times, and I was not afraid. I am a Registered Nurse and am very open and candid about my situation. I find in talking to others, I can help them navigate the health care system, calm anxieties, or give hope when all hope seems lost. That may very well be God’s plan for me. I have no answer as to why I am still here when others, so many others, have passed. I have known all my life that God has a plan for me.
Our very late plane arrived, and as they called for boarding, Father Stefan asked if he could lay hands on me and pray for a healing. I said yes. We stood and he placed both hands on my head and prayed for my healing from melanoma. He petitioned Father Baker to intercede on my behalf. He told me I was healed of cancer, cured.
As Father Stefan prayed aloud, in Gate 4, Buffalo Airport, I felt a calmness and peace wash over me. It was as if everything stood still. I know there must have been many eyes on us wondering what was happening. I wonder if they knew they were witnessing a miracle.
Father Stefan opened a large bag and took out a framed 11 x 14 inch picture of Father Baker and offered it to me. I declined because I knew he spent a bit of money on it, and I knew it was intended for someone else. Father Stefan assured me it was meant for me. I knew it was, too. He also gave me a prayer card with a piece of Father Baker’s vestments attached.
On August 27, 2008, I had repeat PET/CT Scan and a dedicated Chest CT. Two days later, my oncologist called me to tell me the lesion/nodule seen in the February/May scans was gone. I then sent a thank you note to Father Stefan, telling him of my healing.
On December 8, 2008, I was examined at UVA. I requested copies of my past scans for Father Stefan to give to Bishop Loverde. Upon reading these scans I found I had two additional smaller lesions in my right upper lung field. I requested to be rescanned. I talked to Father Stefan later that night and told him of the additional two nodules that I was unaware of. I was disappointed for Father Baker and myself. Father Stefan asked me, “Debbie, do you believe you were healed?”
I said, “Yes.” It is all about faith.
December 11, 2008, the CT scan of my chest and abdomen showed no acute abnormality. An MRI of my brain was also clear. Copies of Scans and Doctor’s Progress Records were given to Father Stefan to take to Bishop Loverde.
In 1987, Father Baker was elevated to Servant of God. Since then, many people have prayed for the occurrence of another miracle in hopes of his canonization.