Melissa Adams: Living With Metastatic Breast Cancer and Supporting Other Patients

Age: 45Waipahu, Hawai‘i

In 2017 Melissa Adams was enrolled in graduate school working to complete her master’s degree in planetary geology. One day after taking a shower she looked up in the mirror and noticed that her right breast looked abnormal. She went to the school nurse, who thought that the abnormality was linked to her menstrual cycle and suggested that she follow up in a month. “I went back in a month and the issue had persisted. It was quite a large lump of dense tissue,” Melissa said. She was referred to a specialist but was apprehensive. She was about to graduate and lose her existing insurance. “I didn’t want to have this preexisting condition and not be able to get new insurance,” she said. However, her nurse explained the seriousness of the situation and insisted that she get care immediately. “All in one day I had an ultrasound, a mammogram, and a biopsy. And then a week later, the Friday before Mother’s Day, I was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma.”

Melissa recalled: “From getting diagnosed it was just a whirlwind of appointments until I got my surgery.” While many patients receive chemotherapy to shrink their tumors before surgery, Melissa had to have surgery right away since her tumor was massive. In addition to the cancer on her right breast, an MRI showed some abnormality on the left breast. “I did not want to go through surgery again and decided to get a double mastectomy,” she said.

After her surgery Melissa wanted to get a second opinion to decide on the next course of action. It was a challenge. “Since we live in Hawai‘i, it is extremely hard for us. I had to buy plane tickets to go to the mainland. I still had drains in from my surgery and could not lift anything over my head. I needed help. My boyfriend had to take time off from work. That was a huge burden timewise, financially, and physically.”

Melissa also highlighted the barriers that prevent patients from Hawai‘i and other Pacific Islands from participating in clinical trials. “We discussed clinical trials and I actively searched for clinical trials. But the unfortunate thing for us here in Hawai‘i is that when it comes to clinical trials, most of them are on the mainland. And I cannot afford to go and stay in a hotel for however many weeks the clinical trials entail,” she said. Additionally, Melissa urges health care providers to identify better ways to communicate with patients and explain clinical trials in a manner that encourages patients to participate.

Melissa did travel to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center for her second opinion. After the consultation, she received many rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Following these treatments, she had a PET scan that did not show any evidence of disease. “But with stage III cancer I knew that it was only a matter of time.” Melissa went on to receive maintenance treatment with hormone therapy and continued until her cancer progressed and was reassigned as stage IV.

The treatments have taken a toll on Melissa. She does not have the level of energy that she used to. “It frustrates me” she said. “I also have what they call ‘chemo brain’. It is hard for me to retain information. And that has taken a big hit to my mental health. Unfortunately, the current medicine available is not able to cure me. It is now a point of how much we can keep the cancer at bay. That is why we need more research for stage IV cancer patients. I feel very lucky to live in this day and age because with all the new medicines that are being developed, they are able to prolong our lives. I am hopeful that a cure will be found one day soon,” she said.

Despite all the challenges, Melissa has been doing better. “I am not caged by fear anymore. I went back to church, which helped tremendously. I am volunteering with Breast Cancer Hawaii. Connecting with people who are like myself has been a great comfort.” As part of her volunteer work Melissa participates in a lot of outreach efforts. “For breast cancer awareness month, we were able to visit our local prison and we talked about early detection. This work is important, and very fulfilling.”

Her diagnosis has Melissa rethinking her legacy. Her perspective on life has shifted dramatically. While it was vital for her to pursue a graduate degree prior to the diagnosis she is now more focused on her relationships. “It is more important to be kind and show love to one another. What really matters is being there for the people that are in your life. Keep them close. Be kind and forgive. If people can be kind, forgiving, and love each other and perpetuate that love it can go far beyond us. It is like the waves that propagate from one small drop of water. A small act of kindness can go far beyond that person.” That is how she wants to be remembered. “That’s a legacy,” she said.