Popular Tennis Pro Using Competitive Streak To Battle Melanoma
In the fall of last year, popular tennis pro and native islander Lindsay Ames found a couple of lumps in her thigh that in her words, “felt like frozen peas.” A PET scan later revealed several other lumps on the same side of her body, insidious signs that the melanoma she fought in 2009 had spread to the lower half of her body.
The unfathomable diagnosis: Stage IV Metastatic Malignant Melanoma. The good news: They caught it early. The cancer- ous cells didn’t collect in any of her organs.
But at 42 years old, Ames geared up for the match of her life
— beating a fast-footed, wily opponent who doesn’t give a damn. Equipped with the mental and physical stamina netted from years of playing competitive tennis, her new target became to crush mela- noma and to make other people aware.
Melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, starts in the melanocytes, the cells that produce skin pigment. Only 2 to 5 percent of skin can- cers are melanomas, according the American Cancer Society (ACS).
Five years ago, a dermatologist first diagnosed Ames with Stage II of the disease after biopsying a black mole on her back. Typical fea- tures of skin tumors may include irregular borders, black or multiple colors, rapid growth and susceptibility to bleeding.
After surgery to remove the mole that left deep scars, Ames and her loving family hoped that would be the end of it.
Ames is the daughter of long-time islanders, David and Nancy Ames. She attended Sea Pines Montessori and Hilton Head Prep, and according to her father, “played tennis every day in the sun as a child.”
Like most teens, Ames laid out in the sun but “not lots,” she noted. And she doesn’t remember suffering blistering sunburns. But per- haps most troubling, she grew up in a generation who shunned sunscreen.
Childhood sunburns are a risk factor for skin cancer. The Skin Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to skin cancer education and prevention, offers a stark warning: suffering one or more blister- ing sunburns in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a per- son’s chances of developing melanoma later in life.
“The sun goes right through your clothing, so today I use sun- screen all over,” she said while tugging on her blouse and adding, “Cotton is the worst.”
IN NO-MAN’S LAND
According to the Mayo Clinic, melanoma develops when DNA damage to skin cells, (most often caused by radiation from the sun), triggers mutations that lead the skin cells to multiply and form malig- nant tumors. Melanoma cells can travel through the body’s lymph nodes and blood vessels to skin, muscle, fat or organs anywhere in the body, including the eyes.
“They even found a black mole on the bottom of my foot — the worst kind of melanoma!”
That’s when Ames received the Stage IV diagnosis. Staging has to do with traveling; the cancer cells had traveled from the top part of her body to the bottom. Metastatic melanoma is an insidious disease. When asking Ames what she wanted to say the most to Monthly
readers, she said, “Go get checked. You have to be on top of skin cancer. It’s better to get it early.”
Her father later added, “The role of a parent of a child at any age is to be conscious of the possibility of skin cancer and encourage a visit to a dermatologist.”
Ames is a lean, athletic woman who could easily feel the lumps in her thigh because of her muscular tennis legs.
“My doctor said if I were heavier, I wouldn’t have found the lumps; the cancer would still be growing into me.”
The “pea-sized” melanomas underneath her skin produced no visual signs such as skin discoloration, strange freckles, lesions or moles.
Recommendations by physician-friends and follow-up by her parents led Ames to choose the Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte for her cancer care. In her family’s assessment, it offered the best treatment based on her needs. An oncologist surgeon at Levine first removed the cancerous tumors from her thigh and hip.
“They basically scooped out my thigh,” Ames said with a flash of determination in her eyes.
The surgery left deep, gargantuan scars that, after explaining how she got the “war wounds,” even inspired one of her younger tennis students to call her, “The Cancer Lady.”
Ames uses the kids’ fascination with her scars as a teachable moment, emphasizing, “If you don’t wear sunscreen, and you’re in the sun too much, this is what can happen to you.”
Following her long recovery from surgery, Dr. Asim Amin, a lead- ing-edge oncology specialist at Levine, prescribed a course of the immunotherapy drug Interferon to bolster her immune system and kill any melanoma cells in her body.
The first month of immunotherapy, Ames received the drug intravenously for two hours every day. The flu-like side effects were considerable: severe muscle aches and fatigue, chills and shaking, nausea and heart palpitations.
“The side effects were pretty horrendous,” her father said while presenting a photo of his daughter lying on a couch with a weary look on her face. “Watching Lindsay go through that month of — hell, Lindsay chimed in — and not being able to do enough … From a par- ent’s standpoint to some degree you feel helpless.”
After her month of misery, the nurses taught Ames how to self- inject Interferon three times a week. Although she doesn’t feel 100 percent today, she considers herself fortunate to be able to tolerate the intense treatment. But her tolerance is not just a factor of her athletic conditioning: her attitude, family and friends make a huge difference.
“Lindsay’s support system is amazing because of the way she is and how she has touched so many people’s lives … her positive spirit plays a huge role in how she feels about herself and making people around her want to give her support. A negative attitude works against the person going through treatment both internally and externally,” her father said. “The prognosis for Lindsay is good. There’s great reason to be optimistic because of the advances being made.”