My Story of Survival

Recovery from Sebaceous/Meibomian Gland Carcinoma

Donna M. Brown

Donna M. Brown

The first time I remember noticing what I believed was a “sty” in my eye was around December 2014. It could have been there much longer, but I gave it very little thought. It looked like a small pimple on my bottom eyelid. It wasn’t painful, it wasn’t even that noticeable to anyone but me.

In June 2015, I noticed the small bump had actually grown. It still didn’t hurt, but it began to rub on my eyeball and it was beginning to make me feel unattractive.

Recovery from sebaceous/meibomian gland carcinoma

Recovery from sebaceous/meibomian gland carcinoma

IMAGE 1. This photo depicts the growth on my eye when I finally decided to have it checked out. It looks far worse here than I ever remember it being.

I visited my optometrist, Dr. Scott Albrecht in Cedar City, Southern Utah Vision Care, and asked him for some kind of magical cure. I have complete faith in him and he was the first person I thought of when I finally decided “this thing has to go.” He attempted to drain it, but realized that the process would be a little more invasive than he was equipped to handle. He referred me to a local surgeon/ophthalmologist – Dr. Clinton Duncan, Mountain Eye Institute — and recommended I have it removed. He warned me the procedure could involve a stitch on my lid.

As Dr. Duncan examined the bump he commented, “That’s a pretty impressive cyst.” I agreed to a simple surgery right there in his office in early June.

IMAGE 2. The wound required six stitches and entailed a far deeper cut than any of us had anticipated. I heard the surgeon comment to his nurse, “let’s put this in a sample dish and send it to the lab.”

I appreciated that he was being overly cautious, but didn’t give his comment much thought until I returned about 10 days later to have the stitches removed and he remarked, “I’m still waiting for results from the pathologist to see whether or not that growth was cancerous.”

Brandi Messerly, Me, London Solomon
Brandi Messerly, Me, London Solomon

It was the first time I remembered hearing the word, “cancer.” The notion seemed ridiculous. Again, I appreciated his thorough approach, but gave it very little thought.

On July 3 I was in Idaho on my way to a fun-filled vacation with my youngest daughter when I got the call. “I’m so sorry to have to tell you … ”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He was so somber, so sorry. He sent the name of the cancer via text message at my request: “Sebaceous/meibomian gland cancer.”

It is never a good idea to Google the name of the disease. That night, all alone in my tent in Victor, Idaho, I braved the unknown and researched my newly-diagnosed crisis on the Internet. It was the first time I remember feeling pure terror. In one short conversation I had gone from jamming to my road music on the highway of life to facing my own mortality.

The cancer is rare; and, it is known to be aggressive, destructive and in some cases deadly. It is entirely possible that the decisions of my optometrist and my ophthalmologist saved my life. It was also possible that my decision to ignore the growth for months and months had proved to be a life-threatening risk.

Within one week, I was in a chair in St. George, UT facing Dr. Bhupendra Patel. My ophthalmologist had assured me he was the best in the business. He educated me on Dr. Patel’s experience, his position as Moran Eye Center Director of Oculoplastic Surgery and of his association with the University of Utah Medical Center. I was assured he was, “The best.”

Dr. Patel was noticeably cautious in the words he chose to reassure me. It became more and more apparent that my situation was extremely serious.

As a professor and revered colleague of other spectacular professionals at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, Dr. Patel called his team of specialists together. The following week I entered the Huntsman Cancer Institute for a consultation with Robert Andtbacka, M.D., C.M., an associate professor of surgical oncology and Marianne Bowling, APRN, FNP-C, a nurse practitioner of surgical oncology.

I was immediately struck by the nature of Huntsman Cancer Institute. The professionals there knew I was terrified. They anticipated my questions and without offering false hope, they explained my three pending surgeries and assured me there had been significant communication between some of the top specialists in the country to assure my cancer was treated swiftly and appropriately. The treatment involved three Utah medical facilities including the University of Utah Medical Center, the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the Moran Eye Center.

On July 30 my first stop was at the UofU Department of Radiology/Nuclear Medicine for lymphoscintigraphy. The idea was to inject nuclear dye around the bottom of my left eye, wait a few hours, then perform an imaging process that would trace the drainage patterns from my eye area to my lymph nodes.

On July 31 I entered the Huntsman Cancer Institute where Dr. Andtbacka was to remove a node to have it tested for signs the cancer had metastasized. At the same time, Glen M. Bowman, M.D. Dr. Bowen. clinical director of the Multidisciplinary Cutaneous Oncology Program would collaborate in the process by performing a Mohs surgery around my eye. The process involved removing small cuts of skin and having them analyzed for cancer cells by a specialized pathologist. He would cut as much as he had to until he achieved a cut with clear, cancer free borders.

From the moment I entered the department, every professional there treated me with kindness and respect. I was flanked by my darling daughter, London, and my daughter-in-law Brandi to keep me sane (and entertained).

The collaboration was flawless.

IMAGE 3. This photograph was taken shortly after I came out of the Mohs surgery. The amount of skin taken from my eyelid was incredible; yet, it was very small compared to what so many of the patients with sebaceous carcinoma endure. Although my eyelid had been completely destructed, we were elated with the result.

I don’t remember much of my trip to the Moran Eye Center. I do remember the kind and patient voice of Dr. Patel arranging for the reconstruction of my eye. Even in my medicated state I was amazed at the smooth  transition. They had torn my eyelid apart and now they were going to build me a new one? I had my doubts.

IMAGE 4. Not only did Dr. Patel repair the damage, he built an entirely new bottom eyelid for me complete with lashes. As I came out of my drug-induced stupor, I could literally hear the relief in his voice as he explained to my daughters the procedure, the severity and the relative simplicity compared to what I could have endured. He was genuinely relieved — and so I was.

The three surgeries took place on Friday. I returned the following Wednesday for what I feared could have been a death sentence, or at least a sentence to the trauma of cancer treatments too many had already suffered. Marianne Bowling was to deliver the pathology report. If the cancer had traveled, I was in for a long, long journey.

The lymph nodes were pronounced clear. Together she and Dr. Andtbacka delivered the news. I was stunned. I had been secretly planning my slow demise in a bubbling cloud of doubt and fear for weeks. I knew how critical it was to remain positive, but in the dark of night fear finds its way even to the strongest and most faithful hearts. It had been ever so difficult for me to accept that my life could be in danger; however, the realization that I had been spared was even a little harder to believe.

IMAGE 5. depicts my eye after one week. I could not believe how it had healed!

THREE WEEKS. This image depicts my eye just three weeks after surgery. In another month it will be absolutely flawless. In fact, Dr. Patel might very well have built an eyelid that was better than the one I had to begin with.

His surgical skills, his warm bedside manner, his kind and professional office staff and a surgical team that rivals any super hero convention turned what could have been a devastating experience into one of hope, rewarded faith and renewed spirit.

While undergoing my procedures and follow-up, I stayed an the University of Utah Patient and Family Housing. The facility is absolutely amazing and I cannot begin to imagine the struggle and expense I might have been through without the center.

My experience was one of hope and spiritual, mental, emotional and physical healing.

If you take nothing else away from this, please remember:

A. Do not EVER ignore any kind of growth on your body no matter how harmless it might seem. Please, just have it checked out. If something seems out of place, it probably is. Had I waited much longer, my story could have ended much differently. My particular type of cancer is famous for masquerading as many other minor disorders.

B. One of the most common reasons for people to delay medical care is financial hardship. Dr. Patel and his team are about healing. At my last visit he said to me, “I want the people to come to me and I will find a way for them to get the medical treatment they need.”

My heart is full and my gratitude is overwhelming. This surgical team could be practicing anywhere in the world — and has turned down many offers elsewhere — to practice in Utah. Because they are here in my home state, my path to them was swift and I was spared (in style no less).

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