Most moms are getting ready for their new baby at six months pregnant. Christina Wilkins was also facing brain surgery.
“My doctor at the time said I needed to get a CT scan on my brain,” says Christina. “So I went that day during lunch and never went home.” She had been dealing with bad headaches, but after the radiologist saw the scan, Christina was immediately admitted to the hospital. Her scan revealed a skin cancer tumor—Christina had Stage 4 melanoma. “The tumor was pushing on my brain.”
Melanoma is a serious type of skin cancer that can spread to other parts of the body. Stage 4 indicates the most serious stage—when the melanoma has spread to an internal organ, like the brain.
“My first thought was, what about my baby?” recalls Christina. Melanoma, can cross the placenta and affect the baby. And with Christina’s cancer already at Stage 4, she couldn’t afford to wait. So right away, she began a cancer treatment plan created by the team at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University.
Skin Cancer Surgery During Pregnancy
Due to Christina’s pregnancy, her cancer treatment plan wasn’t typical. The team knew they had to care for Christina and her baby’s health. They coordinated the care, services and resources needed for a healthy pregnancy and delivery and Christina’s cancer treatment.
“We had to care for two individuals, not just one,” says Michael Lowe, MD, surgical oncologist at Winship Cancer Institute. “We designed her treatment strategy to treat all known cancer at the time, get her through her pregnancy, and then continue additional treatments afterward.”
Christina had brain surgery to remove the tumor four days after her CT scan. The team then planned for Christina to safely deliver her baby a few weeks early (at 34 weeks) so she could begin cancer treatments a month after the birth.
Immunotherapy Boosts the Immune System
“The good news was we have several very effective treatments for advanced melanoma,” says Dr. Lowe.
“I had immunotherapy every other week for a year,” says Christina. “The infusions boost your immune system to fight the cancer on its own.”
Immunotherapy is a promising cancer treatment that helps the body’s immune system recognize and destroy cancer cells. Doctors use it to treat certain skin cancers, especially when they spread to other parts of the body. The Winship Cancer Institute oncology team helps advance immunotherapy treatments, including leading clinical studies.
After her course of immunotherapy, doctors declared Christina cancer-free. “I am five years out from my diagnosis now, cancer-free,” says Christina. “And I’m doing great!” In 2022, she threw out the first pitch at an Atlanta Braves game to help promote skin cancer awareness and sun safety. “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so it’s exciting!”
Prevent Skin Cancer with Sun Protection
“The biggest risk factor for developing skin cancer is early childhood exposure to the sun’s UV rays,” says Dr. Lowe. This risk makes it especially important for parents to protect their kids from the sun. And it remains crucial into adulthood. So, Christina starts each day with some SPF.
Even on cloudy winter days, UV rays can damage your skin cells. But you can protect your skin year-round by wearing:
- Sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher
- Clothes to cover your arms and legs (especially UV-protective clothes)
- A hat to shade your face, ears, shoulders and neck
- Sunglasses to block UVA and UVB rays
Catch Skin Cancer Early with Skin Checks
It’s better to catch skin cancer early, before it has a chance to spread and while it’s easier to treat.
Look out for these warning signs in a mole or growth, called the ABCDEs of melanoma:
- Asymmetrical – is the mole irregular or different on one side?
- Border – is the edge jagged?
- Color – is the color uneven?
- Diameter – is the mole larger than a pea?
- Evolving – has the mole changed in the past few months or weeks?
If you notice skin changes, mention them to your doctor. For example, if you see new growths or have an area that doesn’t heal, it could signal a problem.
Skin Cancer Treatment at Winship Cancer Institute
At Winship Cancer Institute, you’ll have a multidisciplinary team of experts dedicated to you. Patients benefit from the innovation and research-based care only Emory Healthcare can offer. These latest treatments improve outcomes for patients with routine cases and more complex needs, like Christina’s.
We treat many types of skin cancer, including:
- Basal cell carcinoma
- Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans
- Lymphoma of the skin
- Merkel cell carcinoma
- Squamous cell carcinoma
Are you ready to meet with the skin cancer experts at Winship Cancer Institute? Call 404-778-0680 to request an appointment.
About Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University
Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University is Georgia’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a prestigious distinction given to the top tier of cancer centers nationwide for conducting cancer research and providing training that is making breakthroughs against cancer. Winship discovers, develops, delivers and teaches some of the world’s most effective ways to prevent, detect, diagnose and treat each patient’s unique cancer. Cancer care at Winship includes specialists with deep expertise and experience in cancer; multidisciplinary evaluation, treatment planning and care coordination that caters to each patient’s individual needs; therapies supported by the latest advances in cancer research; and comprehensive clinical trials and support services.