Melanoma: Erin’s Story
Patient Story Highlights
- After discovering a lump in her breast, public affairs consultant Erin Billings was diagnosed with a type of skin cancer called metastatic melanoma.
- Through a combination of surgery and immunotherapy, Erin's doctors were able to treat the melanoma.
- Erin felt supported by her care team throughout treatment, which she completed in June of 2020.
Erin Billings was religious about seeing a dermatologist regularly for skin checks as an adult, a few times having precancers removed. Then, two years ago, she found a lump in her breast that turned out to be melanoma that had spread to the site. Thanks to prompt surgery and immunotherapy treatment at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center at Sibley Memorial Hospital, Erin and her husband Jay, are looking forward to celebrating many more occasions together.
“Like many teens and 20-somethings, I probably spent too much time at the beach and was some under some illusion that my Norwegian-Irish skin was able to tan in the sun,” she says. “It was a mistake that many of us make no matter what our ethnicity is.”
Erin, who is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C., developed a deep vein thrombosis, or blood clot, in her leg. At the time, she chalked it up to frequent airplane travel. The clot resolved a few weeks later, but a new issue surfaced – she felt a lump on her left breast getting ready for bed one night.
Erin didn’t hesitate and saw her gynecologist the next day for a mammogram and biopsy. A day and a half later, Erin learned the test results revealed she had metastatic melanoma, not breast cancer. This aggressive skin cancer begins in skin cells but spreads to other areas of the body.
A close friend suggested Dr. Evan Lipson. The next week, Erin met him and nurse practitioner Megan Schollenberger. The comprehensive evaluation included tests and multidisciplinary team approach to treatment.
Dr. Lipson explained to Erin that her she had stage IV cancer and recommended a two-part attack plan, including surgery to remove the evident tumor and immunotherapy to kill off any remaining cancer cells throughout her body. After a couple of immunotherapy infusion treatments to shrink the tumor, Erin underwent a lumpectomy procedure in June 2019 by surgeon Dr. Julie Lange, who has expertise in both breast cancer and melanoma. From there, she continued monthly infusions of immunotherapy until completing treatments in June 2020.
“You really have to believe; the mental game is real,” Billings says. “My husband and I started collecting pennies after my diagnosis, and wishing on them. Don’t hope – believe. Hope comes from a place of negativity and belief comes from a place of positivity.”
Now, Billings says while she still needs periodic imaging scans to monitor for any cancer recurrence, she feels fortunate to live in a community with “such amazing medicine,” and to have had great backing from family, friends and the Johns Hopkins Sibley team.
"It does take a village," she says. "The nurses, technicians, and everyone else was great. You see the same people when you go often enough. It would have been far lonelier and more difficult had I not already felt like I had a support system at Sibley and with the Johns Hopkins institutions."
While Erin’s case was a bit atypical, her story emphasizes the importance of seeing a doctor promptly, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Dr. Lipson.
“For anybody who has an odd skin finding, or a question about something they see, it’s worth getting to the dermatologist for evaluation,” he says. “We have a wonderful team of dermatology, surgery and oncology experts with measures in place to keep patients safe.”
Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in the D.C. Region
At Sibley Memorial and Suburban Hospital you have direct access to world class, innovative and ground breaking care provided by teams of specialists in medical oncology, radiation oncology and surgical oncology, with access to advanced treatments through Johns Hopkins clinical trials.