A mom dad and two daughters pose in their family portrait on the left and on the right they are in matching shirts

News | 18 days ago

A Mom’s Fight Against an Aggressive Melanoma

After her shocking skin cancer diagnosis, this mom wants others to understand: Preventing melanoma is much easier than treating it.

The day that Erin Julian learned she had melanoma, her three-year-old daughter sensed her mom was sad before she even knew why. Before bedtime, the girl offered her mom something sure to help: a stuffed animal to sleep with.

A cancer diagnosis can cause an emotional blow and spark concerns over what’s next, but there’s an additional level of worry for young adults like Erin. One person may receive a cancer diagnosis, but it affects the whole family. When she learned she had melanoma in 2021, Erin was a 35-year-old mom of two toddler girls.

The diagnosis was especially overwhelming for Erin, who felt healthy, stayed active and had no symptoms of cancer. Her only clue was a persistent lymph node swelling. When the swelling didn’t subside, her doctor sent her for tests, which revealed melanoma.

“First, I felt shock,” Erin says. “But then I had a lot of fear about what was to come. What would treatments be like? How would I take care of my family during all of that?”

New Treatments are Transforming Melanoma Care

Historically, the diagnosis of advanced melanoma had dismal outcomes with a median survival rate of 6-9 months. However, clinical trials led to the development of new treatment modalities including immunotherapy and targeted therapy, which have had a significant impact on clinical outcomes. Dr. Asim Amin, Erin’s oncologist, is the principal investigator for clinical trials in malignant melanoma at Atrium Health Levine Cancer, which is the region’s oldest and most experienced immunotherapy program in the region.              

Erin’s melanoma was noted to harbor the BRAF mutation, that typically foreshadows aggressive disease. Because of that, Amin chose a multi-modality treatment plan including targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and surgery.

“The speed of getting in to see Dr. Amin was huge for me, and he really took time to go over everything with me and my husband,” Erin says. “I really appreciated how speedy everything was. That was a huge comfort.”

During her treatments, Erin dealt with fatigue, resulting from the medications’ side effects, the emotional toil of cancer and being a parent to two young kids through all of it. She discovered that many people didn’t understand how serious some skin cancers can be.

“There’s a misunderstanding that all skin cancers can be easily removed,” Erin says. “Sometimes it was hard for people to understand that this wasn’t something you can just get rid of, and it would be no big deal. There was a lot more to it.”

After her diagnosis, Erin began to think back on moments in her life that seemed harmless at the time: sessions in tanning beds; years competing in outdoor track without sunscreen. She wished she could go back in time to tell herself to prioritize her health. Erin began to use her experience to encourage others to take precautions, telling family and friends how much easier it is to get screenings and wear protective clothing than to deal with cancer treatments.

“I was already a firm believer in all of the cancer screenings, but now I’m on all of my family, too,” Erin says. “I tell them, ‘This is important. Don’t miss any of those screenings because you don’t want to have to go through this.’” 

Gratitude for the Everyday, Ordinary Moments

After completing her targeted treatment and surgery, Erin had immunotherapy injections for one year. From that first night with her daughter’s stuffed animal through her last immunotherapy injection, her family made sure Erin felt supported all the way. They wore t-shirts that read, “Her fight is our fight. We stand with Erin.”

Now, about two and a half years after her diagnosis, Erin is free of disease. Every six months, she’ll continue to see Amin for scans and labs to make sure the cancer doesn’t return. Even so, Erin has found that melanoma can create an impact that lasts even after the disease.

“I thought I was going to feel this huge relief when I finished treatments, but it’s still hard,” Erin says. “You have to shift your mindset to learn to live with uncertainty.”

Today, Erin’s returning to feeling like herself and enjoying her routine again. Even as cancer took away a degree of security from her, it’s heightened her focus on the joy of the ordinary.

“I feel so grateful and happy to be here with my girls, to see them experience so many new things,” Erin says. “We're planning a family vacation in November, and I just feel like, wow, I'm so thankful that I get to be there for all of it.”

Learn more about leading-edge melanoma care at Atrium Health Levine Cancer, with more than 25 locations across the region.