Knowing Her Options
When Christina McEvoy was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma, she took the reins of her care, traveling more than 600 miles for treatment and returning home to help other melanoma survivors.
By Melissa Davlin
Photo by Chad Case
Christina McEvoy likes to think of herself as an optimist. But when the mother of two was diagnosed in 2010 with stage IV melanoma, a disease with a five-year survival rate of just 15 to 20 percent, she was hard-pressed to find a silver lining.
“I didn’t know anyone [who had melanoma],” says McEvoy, who lives in Meridian, Idaho, 10 miles outside of Boise. “The statistics were so grim. You’re reading about people who are dying. It caused so much anxiety. I needed to find people who were surviving.”
After seeing a local oncologist who recommended that she explore all her treatment options, McEvoy began to do her research. She interviewed five physicians who specialized in treating metastatic melanoma, and eventually decided on a melanoma specialist in San Francisco, more than 600 miles from her home. Two months after McEvoy began a biochemotherapy treatment, her cancer went into remission. In the midst of undergoing maintenance treatment to keep the cancer from coming back, she also started a local support group for people with melanoma in her community.
“This is what I want to portray to people who are diagnosed with melanoma: There are people who are beating this,” says McEvoy. “That’s what I needed [to know] back then and that’s what I want people to see now. People are surviving this.”
A Sunny Childhood
McEvoy, a tall, slender woman with dark hair, olive skin and hazel eyes, has a contagious enthusiasm. She spent most of her childhood summers in Pleasanton, Calif., outside in the sun, swimming and relaxing beside her parents’ pool. In high school and college, she took her love of water and activity one step further when she became a lifeguard and swim instructor. She passed a love of the outdoors to her two sons, Austin, 9, and Carson, 6, who, like her, love to ski, hike, bike and camp.
“It’s a shame [that] the thing I love the most puts me in the sun,” says McEvoy, 36. “I love being outside. That’s the Californian in me.” She and her husband, Eric, met in college at Utah State University in Logan. Both were pursuing undergraduate degrees in exercise and sports science. They married in 2000 and moved to Cincinnati in 2004. The couple had their first son in 2005 and relocated to Meridian, where Eric had accepted a job as a physical therapist in 2007.
That fall, McEvoy, then 29, was pregnant with her second son when she noticed a mole on her thigh starting to change. She initially chalked it up to pregnancy hormones. But over time, the spot developed rough scales, turning from dark brown to black. In February 2008, McEvoy went to her dermatologist to get it checked. The biopsy revealed stage I melanoma. Her doctor performed a wide excision, surgically removing the mole and areas of healthy skin around it. The cancer, her doctor told her, needed no further treatment and had a 10 percent chance of coming back.
“I really did not ever think it would come back,” says McEvoy. “I had a 90 percent chance of it being cured. I’ve always been a glass-is-half-full kind of girl, so it seemed like pretty good odds.”
Two years later, she felt a lump on the left side of her
groin—just inches away from where the original melanoma was found. The growth “appeared literally overnight,” she says. A lymph node biopsy confirmed what McEvoy, then 32, feared. The cancer had returned. This time, it was stage III melanoma. She had a complete lymph node dissection, which removed the lymph node that had cancer in it along with 10 nearby lymph nodes. After the surgery, McEvoy’s doctor encouraged her to explore clinical trials that might provide newer treatments to keep the aggressive cancer from coming back.
After doing some online research, McEvoy learned she qualified for a phase III clinical trial offered through Northern California Melanoma Center at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco, which was not far from her parents’ house in Pleasanton. She moved in with her parents while she was on the trial, which analyzed whether an experimental drug that targeted MAGEA3, a gene that is expressed in about 65 percent of stage III melanomas, could increase survival and keep patients in remission.
After three months on the trial, McEvoy got more bad news: A routine CT scan revealed she had four tumors on her lungs. A subsequent scan found two more. The distant metastases meant McEvoy now had stage IV melanoma. “We sort of were backed up against a corner,” her husband, Eric, 36, recalls. Quelling the impulse to jump into the first treatment they were offered, McEvoy stepped back and took seven weeks to interview different melanoma specialists in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Boston.