The Melissa Fund
PO Box 114
East Setauket, NY 11733
Melissa began writing an article for TeenVogue Magazine about her experience with Melanoma. After her death, her colleagues found it on her hard drive. Her story is below, in her own words.
"January 12, 2001. I’ll never forget that date. That was the day that I found out that I had malignant melanoma – and my life was forever changed. I remember being called back to my dermatologist’s office after I’d had a small mole removed from my shoulder, leaving work mid-day with some worry but no concept of the road that could lay ahead for me. To put it short, I had no idea what I was in for.
Thus far at age 26, I’d lived a perfect existence. Minus your typical teenage insecurity and 3 years of braces, I had it all - a wonderful family that all my friends envied, a great college experience at Notre Dame, and an exciting life in Hoboken. I’d found a career in advertising that I loved and a social life that my other friends in other cities couldn’t get enough of. I was everyone’s entertainment with my stories of dating in NYC and relaxing at the Jersey Shore.
And tanning…yikes the tanning. I loved to sit in the sun as a teenager and in the summers on the beach at the Jersey Shore. Call it relaxing, call it therapeutic, but there has always been a peace for me about sun tanning. I wouldn’t call myself reckless about tanning – but I love to be tan as most females do. Also, like most females, I would dodge the articles in magazines about the risks of tanning – thinking skin cancer would never happen to me. I live in NY, not Florida and have no family history of melanoma, so what were the odds, right?
On January 12, 2001, my light-hearted existence came to an abrupt end. It had to. I fought the seriousness of the situation, wanting to believe that this would go away like the common cold. But it didn’t. Rather, I remember my new oncologist telling me that this would be a marathon. My family and I found out that the melanoma had progressed into my lymph nodes in my underarm, that I had to have surgery and consider post-surgical treatment.
So quickly, everything seemed to get worse and worse. Each “toss up” we lost – and no “gamble” went my way. Suddenly my life was full of appointments to various doctors and tests and scans and more tests…that it all became so overwhelming. Nothing like this had ever happened to me, nor to any family members. Even my father, himself a physician, was lost for words on how to handle what was happening. But, somehow we pulled through…"
Melissa never actually finished writing this essay before she died. Her sister, Maribeth, later finished the article from her own perspective – as a physician and sister. Her piece was ultimately published in TeenVogue to help young woman understand the dangers of the sun. An excerpt from her piece tells the rest of Melissa’s story
It was almost a year after her initial diagnosis, just around Thanksgiving, when we found out that Melissa’s melanoma had spread. She called me one night because she was having trouble talking. It was as if her tongue was paralyzed. I told her to get to an emergency room immediately, feeling completely helpless from my home in Washington, DC. My brother and parents met her in the emergency room and were there when the doctors told them that Melissa had a seizure because of a tumor in her brain. The melanoma was back. Again, I hopped a train to get home to be with her.
From that point on, Melissa’s battle with melanoma was a blur of surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy. I came home to be with her as often as I could, and would stay with her in the hospital each time she was admitted. I’d try to sleep in the recliner chair next to her bed, but would oftentimes push her over in the middle of the night and make her share the bed with me the way we did when we were kids. I was always so amazed by her resilience. She’d go into the hospital for brain surgery, and be on the phone two days later talking to her business clients from her hospital bed. I don’t think very many of her friends and co-workers even knew how serious her condition was because she was so incredible at bouncing back.
Feeling so far away, my husband and I decided to move to New York to be closer to our families. I was pregnant with my son when we moved. Melissa embraced my pregnancy and could not wait until the baby was born. She stayed with me in the delivery room while I was in labor, wiping my forehead, cheering me on and encouraging me to be strong. Always the inspiration to me, we decided to ask her to be my son’s Godmother and of course, she accepted.
It was shortly after my son’s christening in the fall of 2003 that we learned that Melissa’s cancer had not only spread to her brain, but to more lymph nodes, her liver, and her spine. Her doctors started her on more chemotherapy, but we knew it was only a matter of time. Three days before Christmas, she was admitted to the hospital because she was very weak. On Christmas Eve, she slipped into a coma and died two days later. My family was with her when she passed, each holding her hands and hugging her. It was very peaceful and full of love. I feel blessed to have been with her.
I know now that as a pediatrician, I have to make a difference. I cannot let my sister’s death be in vain. Parents need to know how to protect their kids against the sun and its harms. Since Melissa has died, I’ve decided to change my career path to try to be a louder voice for melanoma. I figure that by telling people her story and making them understand how awful a disease melanoma is, maybe more deaths can be prevented. This is the best way I can think of to honor her memory.
I still have a hard time believing that she’s gone. We were apart so much during college and my medical school, that most times I feel like I’m going to see her again the next time I go home to visit my parents. But, at least once every day, I think about dialing her phone number to tell her something, and remember that she’s not here. Every night during our bedtime prayers, my husband and I pray with our son for his “Aunt Missa”, and as I lay him down to sleep, I ask her to watch over him, to love and protect him from heaven. She isn’t just his Godmother anymore; she’s his guardian angel.
-Maribeth Bambino Chitkara, MD