By Sarah Obeid
PEMBROKE – A former Hopewell High student has only one wish – to beat cancer.
Raised in the Lake Norman area, 20-year-old Summer Heath is fighting a rare eye cancer. She was diagnosed with ocular melanoma on July 1, 2013. The cancer develops in the cells that produce eye color or pigment in or around the eye.
Never once did Summer imagine acquiring cancer at such a young age or even at all.
Ocular melanoma only affects six out of one million people and is most common in adults and older people. It rarely affects adolescents, which makes Summer’s diagnosis an odd one.
But the astonishing part – ocular melanoma has threatened the lives of three other girls who also attended Hopewell High School or lived in close proximity to the school. One of them, 24-year-old Meredith Legg Stapleton, died Feb. 24. Summer considers Meredith a hero and friend.
Summer plans to help with research regarding the ocular melanoma trend facing young girls in the Huntersville area. She does not want to start a panic, but is looking to scope out details that might explain the frequency of young girls from the Lake Norman region getting diagnosed with the rare cancer.
Regardless of the challenges the cancer throws at her, Summer still attends classes at UNC Pembrooke, studying elementary education. She enjoys movies and attending sporting events.
She recently shared with The Herald Weekly how she copes daily with ocular melanoma.
Q: What were your initial feelings upon receiving the news you had cancer?
A: I was in shock but I felt like I knew it. I had dreams about doctors finding a tumor or being told I had cancer. I guess it was just a sign that I kept missing.
I felt like everything was taken away from me. Everything I wanted and worked for was flushed down the toilet. It took me a couple days to snap out of those thoughts, but I still come back to it occasionally.
And then I think about bringing awareness and how many people support me. It’s a reminder that I was given this for a reason. I can’t give up.
Q: Have you had a chance to talk with the other Hopewell High girls who became sick with the eye cancer? If so, is there something all of you have in common relating to the cancer?
A: I had a lot of contact with Meredith, but the other girl not so much.
Meredith and I actually both had the radiation plaque from the same doctor, and all three of us have the same oncologist. Meredith and I had the same placement of the tumor, as well as the same eye. We found other small similarities. Her family is from the same town in West Virginia as mine.
The other girl’s father and Meredith’s father were in the same fraternity at the same college at the same time. We all had similar symptoms, which was loss of vision.
Q: What do you think as a 20-year-old fighting such a rare cancer that usually only affects older people?
A: I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. And even though it took me a couple days after the diagnosis to believe that again, I never question “why me?” or “why at 19?”
This is life. We were all given different challenges and battles. Mine is just when I am young, which will only benefit me because I am in better health and have so much to fight for.
It’s just a chapter in my life, but it won’t be what defines me.
Q: I read a few blogs concerning your travels to Philadelphia for different tests and scans. What was that like?
A: The first time traveling up there seemed like a nice summer road trip. However, when I walked into a waiting room with at least 30 other patients and being the youngest one by a good 15-20 years, it hit that this isn't common.
The first day, they test where they first suspected the tumor.
The worst part was waiting to hear if they would be able to save my eye. I knew the tumor was very large. I honestly went up there and accepted the fact that I would lose my eye.
My family and I were one of the first people in the waiting room and we were the last to leave. After seven hours of waiting, doing tests, being in meetings, and feeling hungry, I found out I was able to keep my eye. I never thought hearing those words could be so amazing.
Q: What kind of treatment did you receive?
A: I had a radiation plaque attached to my eye for five days straight. Luckily, the doctors took very good care of me, and I have very vague memories from those days.
Q: What are some of the fears and worries you have while fighting the cancer?
A: Metastasis, the spread of cancer to other parts of the body, is definitely my most concerning fear.
Melanoma is known to spread to other organs, especially the liver. Because of this, I have scans every 3-6 months to ensure that there is no spreading, and if there is, then we will catch it early.
But my biggest fear is not bringing awareness to this cancer. People don't realize how important it is to get their eyes checked yearly. This cancer is so sneaky and has already taken a friend’s life. I can’t let it take another.
Q: How have you been coping with and adapting to the cancer? I see that you have a GoFundMe site in hopes to receive donations. Tell me about your support systems.
A: I have amazing support systems from everybody I meet.
But my friends and family have done the most. They are always there to snap me back into reality and keep pushing me forward when I feel like there’s no point.
Especially my mom, she has done so much and still encourages me to keep pushing, as well as my brother. He gives the tough love and realistic point of view.
A lot of my friends have helped by setting up my GoFundMe account and writing about me in their blogs to help bring awareness. One of which actually got posted to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation Facebook page.
I get many emails and comments on my blogs from fellow fighters with words of wisdom and kindness.
Q: How are you juggling class work, social time with family and friends and cancer treatments?
A: I do still attend school. I live three hours away from my family, which is hard because cancer really did bring us all closer.
I still make good grades and I am still on schedule to graduate May 2015.
I have great friends at school who allow me to forget that I even have cancer, but when I need them, I know they are there in a heartbeat.
A lot of people think I would be going out and enjoying college to the fullest, but that’s not really me. I stay in and do homework. My biggest goal is to walk across that stage in my cap and gown and grab that diploma; I will be the first person in my family to graduate college. That is my main focus. Both my family and friends support my goal.
Q: Can everyday life tasks get challenging to manage? Are things becoming easier as you go along the road to recovery?
A: Everything is back to normal for the most part. I don't feel like I did before.
It’s like every day I wake up with a new ache or migraine, but I wake up, so I am grateful and put it behind me.
Q: What have you learned from the experience of battling eye cancer? Is there any advice you can offer to others fighting ocular melanoma?
A: My best advice is you're not alone.
Yes, this cancer is rare, but it is best to use social media to network with others struggling with the cancer. There are more fighters than you think, so why not make a friend. You never know what impact they may have in your life?