Midland woman finds new hope against advanced melanoma

Doctors say clinical trials are 'pushing the envelope'

DETROIT - Heidi Gross is the photographer in her family, snapping thousands and thousands of pictures over the years.

But during her fight with melanoma, Gross made a point of handing the camera over to others, asking them to take pictures of her -- catching snowflakes on her tongue with her grandchildren and teaching them how to plant flowers in the spring. She was worried it might be the last time they did those things together.

Gross, a pharmacist, was diagnosed with melanoma in a very unusual way. It started with a hard bump into a bathroom counter.

"I hit the corner of the countertop and a big lump developed. It never bruised or anything," said Gross. "I thought, 'This will just go away, this will just go away, this will just go away.' It did not go away."

A year passed.

"My husband finally said, 'If you don't go in and get that checked, I am going to make an appointment for you,'" said Gross.

Her doctor recommended surgery to remove the lump. It was tested, and the results stunned everyone.

"It was malignant melanoma," said Gross. "The doctor was very surprised himself to even be telling me that."

Melanoma. The most deadly form of skin cancer. And it had already spread.

Doctors believe Gross' melanoma was linked to sun exposure when she was younger, and that it likely originated from a mole Gross had removed a decade ago.

Gross immediately focused on doing everything she could to beat the cancer, for her two daughters, ten grandchildren, and John, her husband of 36 years and high school sweetheart.

"Being here for them, being here for John and continuing to grow old together, it means everything to me," said Gross.

Gross lives in Midland. Her doctors referred her to the Karmanos Cancer Institute, two and a half hours away in Detroit.

It was there that she met medical oncologist Dr. Lawrence Flaherty. At their first meeting, he sketched out her disease on the paper covering the exam table. Years later, Gross still has that drawing.

When traditional treatments ultimately failed to control the cancer, it was Flaherty who suggested a clinical trial underway at Karmanos.

"When I heard the word 'clinical trial,' that to me was almost worse than hearing the word cancer," said Gross. "It was the first time that I teared up in the office. I know I was almost panicked at that point when I heard that."

To Gross, a clinical trial meant hope was fading. Not the case, insists Flaherty.

"It's just the opposite. Clinical trials are the engine for progress in the cancer field," said Flaherty. "They're really the best option for care for a patient today. Heidi was fortunate enough to have a feature on her cancer that made her a candidate for some special treatment, and we were able to get her involved in a phase one study that involves two new drugs that are oral. She was able to get treatment, I would say, almost a year and a half before these drugs become commercially available."

Nearly 300 clinical trials are currently available at Karmanos, including ten for melanoma.

For Gross, the proof is in the results.

"The results have been surprising to me. My test scans right away have come back that the areas are clear," said Gross. "The spots are, they're gone. They're not showing up. They're gone."

The fight isn't necessarily over.

"I think the story is still being written with these new drugs," said Flaherty. "We don't know how long they'll work, and for whom they'll work, and we don't know when it's going to be safe to stop them. So we're pushing the envelope."

"She's has always been a fighter in whatever she has done," said John Gross. "She will see it to the end. She has never been a quitter."

"Life is too short to not try," said Gross. "Clinical trials are something that I would recommend now. There is hope, and that's what I wanted to be able to convey to others, that there is hope."

To visit the Karmanos Cancer Institute website, click here.

To learn more about clinical trials offered at Karmanos, call 800-KARMANOS (800- 527-6266).

To find out more about the Karmanos Cancer Institute's 32nd Annual Dinner, click here.

The fundraising event will raise funds to help renovate the Institute's infusion center where so many patients receive lifesaving chemotherapy treatments.

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