Gearing up for a girls’ trip

So, readers of the blog may know that I’m somewhat addicted to traveling. And about a year and a half ago, I took a trip to Germany to visit a long-lost friend.  Since then, we’ve whatsapp’ed and remained in touch. A few months ago, she mentioned that she really wanted to get away on a trip and somehow, we decided upon Scotland. Long story short, we’re meeting up in a few weeks to visit Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the highlands (after I run around Bristol and London for my annual solo travel fix).

I’m looking forward to the trip for a variety of reasons. One, the chance to hang out in person with a friend that I’ve grown closer to even though we live thousands of miles apart. Two, the chance to visit cities that have been on the wish list for quite awhile (I’m looking at you London and Edinburgh) as well as places weren’t that high on my list until I started doing the research (ahem, Bristol and Glasgow, sorry but I am now really looking forward to exploring). Three, the very good likelihood that most of my skin is not going to be exposed to the sun for two weeks. It’s like a win-win on all fronts for me.

London is another one of those “regrets” I had when I was worried that my melanoma had spread. I’m really glad I started making travel a priority again.

I’m sure I’ll give a play-by-play but for now, I’m enjoying the process of planning, researching, and figuring out how to best maximize my time there. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears…

Gearing up for a girls’ trip

New Blood Tests for Detecting the Presence of Skin Cancer

I just saw a very interesting article that highlights how researchers have developed a blood test to look for markers of melanoma DNA in a patient’s blood. The tests take only 48 hours to run (which is a pretty short timeframe), and as we all know, the quicker you can treat melanoma, the better the survival rates.

So what this test does is to identify melanoma DNA in the blood of patients whose cancer is spreading and who lack defects in either BRAF or NRAS genes. (Backstory – mutations in those genes account for more than half of the 50,000 cases of melanoma diagnosed each year in the United States. So those mutations can already be found in existing tests. The new tests help people who do not have the mutations and the cancer is starting to spread…)

What’s really cool is that according to the article, researchers estimate that when their new tests become available for use in clinics, the majority of all melanomas will be detectable. Have a mutation? Great, there was a test already for that. Don’t have a mutation, well now the researchers think they have you covered too.

I’m going to quote directly from the article so I don’t mess up any of the science part…

The new tests monitor blood levels of DNA fragments––known as circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA)––that are released into the blood when tumor cells die and break apart, Polsky explained. Specifically, the tests detect evidence of mutations in the chemical “building blocks” of a gene that control telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT), a protein that helps cancer cells maintain the physical structure of their chromosomes.

Those TERT mutations are found in other types of cancer, not just melanoma. Which means that these tests may also help other cancer patients who have been undergoing treatment find out much sooner that the treatment (for whatever reason) is no longer controlling the spread of the cancer tumor.


New Blood Tests for Detecting the Presence of Skin Cancer

Fulfilling a Dream

Sorry I’ve been so quiet on the blog the last month or so. As you might remember, I mentioned that I was going on a trip with my husband for our anniversary.

This trip was more than just a “get out of town to celebrate” kind of thing. You see, I have loved the idea of seeing the world ever since I was a very young girl, flipping through the pages of an oversized world atlas (for you youngsters who don’t see maps very often, here’s an idea of the different types of atlases). But I grew up in a pretty poor working class family; and as I covered in another post, my family very rarely left the house. We just couldn’t afford it.

But places that no one had ever heard of, let alone visited, had always held an allure for me. And the Maldives had long held a fascination in my mind, even before the rise of luxury tourism there. The notion of traveling there became like a touchstone for me. I daydreamed about turquoise waters, swaying palms trees, and white beaches for years.

And then I got melanoma… specifically amelanotic nodular melanoma. And then I wasn’t too sure that I would have enough time left to be able to experience any of the daydream travel I had kept putting off until “someday”. Someday when I had enough money, someday when I had enough vacation time, someday when I reached a certain milestone – whether it was an anniversary, or a weight, or an age. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure I was going to have more somedays. I mourned the missed opportunities for experiences that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to have. I mourned the missing passport stamps that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to collect.

Fortunately, the excision seemed to have gotten all of the cancer cells floating around in my leg. I have needed to get random bits of my skin removed for biopsy along the way; but so far (knock wood) I haven’t had another lesion come back malignant. I’m very, very lucky that my pink melanoma was caught and removed early enough to give me two years to look back and marvel how lucky I am.

So when the airfare sale on Emirates came up, I didn’t hesitate. No, this anniversary wasn’t one of the “big” ones. Twelve does seem like a random number for such a celebration. But I don’t care. I’m not about to wait any longer for the mythical “someday”. And in the end, it really worked out because we were able to use hotel points I had been hoarding for years on an amazing redemption at the St. Regis Vommuli in the Maldives, as well as the Al Maha in the Dubai Desert Conservation Area. Both are luxury resorts that have paid rates that would be out of my financial reach. But I had been sitting on a stash of points that covered the cost of our 12 night trip.

I was thinking that I do that a lot, sit on airline miles or hotel points – waiting for that mythical someday. And it’s a little jarring to realize that if I had had a worse outcome with my pink melanoma that all of those carefully hoarded points would have gone to waste. (Plus, as much as those award charts get devalued, I’ve already lost a ton of potential trips I could have taken…)

So this trip was really a promise I made to myself when I got the call from the surgeon with the pathology report that said the margins were clear. I don’t want to wait for the mythical someday to start experiencing places I have dreamt about for years. I guess getting the reality check that you aren’t immortal after all will do that for you.

And the Maldives were just as heavenly as I anticipated. I can’t put into words how beautiful the place is and how lovely the people are (most of the staff in the resort were from the southern islands in the country). When I say I found my happy place, I mean that. It’s a literal place on earth that if I knew the end of the world (or at least the end of my time on it) was coming, I would hightail it there and live out the rest of my days. Very, very rarely do I say to myself that I would go back to a place I’ve been. I mean, there’s still so much left of the planet I haven’t seen yet. But I would go back to the Maldives in a heartbeat.

So now I have a new daydream… if I ever won the lottery, I would spend a month a year somewhere in the Maldives. The only question is whether I would try different resorts or if I would just make a beeline for the St. Regis again 😉

St. Regis Vommuli Maldives… my happy place beach (Feb 2016)
Fulfilling a Dream

Artificial Intelligence Might be the Next Frontier for Skin Cancer Detection

I mentioned in a previous post that I work for a big data platform company, which I am hopeful can be used to really allow data to help make people’s lives better, healthier, and safer. One of the recent articles that has come out regarding artificial intelligence has a deeply personal aspect, skin cancer detection.

Now, I know I wrote a post a little while ago that outlined how doctors were saying that smartphone apps were no match for a dermatologist for detecting cancerous skin lesions. In fact, amelanotic nodular melanoma was one type that the apps routinely misdiagnosed as benign.

But algorithms help machines learn and those algorithms are pretty powerful when machine learning happens. I’m not smart enough to explain how machine learning actually works, other than to say that providing data with an algorithm allows the software to actually refine and learn characteristics of whatever you’re trying to teach it. And machine learning has really begun to soar once we were able to harness the power of using pedabytes of data.

Anyway, long introduction to the article that summarizes the research carried out at Stanford who developed a system that was “able to distinguish between cancerous moles and harmless ones with more than 90 percent accuracy.” That’s quite an impressive result. But even more impressive was when they put this system up against trained dermatologists where the system “achieved performance on par with all tested experts.”

Now, does this mean that your dermatologist will be soon replaced by a machine? No, absolutely not. First of all, no one has developed a robot doctor yet to perform excisions (although I’m now picturing Rosie the maid robot from the Jetsons wielding a scalpel and that is a creepy mental image). Secondly, the system was fed almost 130,000 images to learn the characteristics of skin cancer; but those images were high-quality, high resolution. As I learned, my Loki did not want its picture taken. (Seriously, every picture I took made it look like a weird pimple rather than pink melanoma.) So, the leap from this system to an app that can diagnose melanoma – let alone abnormal melanoma – on the fly as an app using your smartphone camera is not going to happen in the next few months. But it is cool to see researchers using machine learning to advance the tools that can spot skin cancer.

It almost feels like we’re finally moving into the promise of the space age…just leave Rosie out of the doctor’s office.

Artificial Intelligence Might be the Next Frontier for Skin Cancer Detection

World Cancer Day 2017

It’s February 4, 2017 and that means that it’s World Cancer Day. As I’ve written about right after my excision and then last year, it’s a weird day for me. I’m never sure if I even should count myself among the cancer survivors since I (so far, knock wood) have only had to deal with getting the excision. I realize how fortunate I am not have the experience of chemo or radiation or any of the other treatments for later stage melanoma.

I hope all of you reading the blog are doing well. And if you are still battling cancer, my heart and positive thoughts go out to you and your loved ones. I know that this process is one filled with a roller coaster of emotions. Whether it’s melanoma or any of the other forms that cancer can take, this day should be a day to celebrate the people that have fought against this disease – whether they managed to triumph or succumbed. I’m thinking of my friends who lost battles to cancers of the breast, brain, colon, and leukemia today. And hoping that despite the anti-science sentiment so strong in the United States, that we still champion the scientists, researchers, and doctors who are looking for innovative ways to combat cancer. We still have a long way to go on some fronts, but some of the advances being made have given me hope that we can find ways to treat and maybe even cure people who wouldn’t have had much hope in years past.

Wouldn’t it be nice if one day, World Cancer Day sounds as antiquated as World Smallpox Day?

World Cancer Day 2017

Upcoming Travel Plans

In my previous post, I mused on how I developed the love for travel (OK, obsession). I know I sure as heck didn’t get it from my parents. But I can’t pass by a world map or an atlas without stopping to give it a long look.

When you’re a kid, the world can seem very mysterious and foreign. That can either freak you out or get you interested in what it looked like over there, what are the people like? And there were a few spots on the atlas that no matter what the entries were in the encyclopedia, were still mysterious. And in a few weeks, I’m finally going to be able to see at least two of those places with my own eyes.

OK, so in today’s Internet-connected world, there are very few places that are still truly mysterious. I actually feel bad for today’s kids because they can get a Google Maps street view of pretty much anywhere and Instagram is stuffed with photos from places I honestly thought were figments of my imagination when I was a kid (I’m looking at you Bhutan, which still seems a bit otherworldly even after I saw the pictures; you’re on the list right after my company’s stock splits)…

My husband and I have our wedding anniversary coming up next month. I’ll be honest, there were times that I didn’t think we would make it to this point. And when our 10 year anniversary happened, I was in no mood to celebrate it – we were having problems, my leg was all sliced open from the excision, I had a job that was stressful and put too many demands on me in too few hours in the day. In short, I was in no mood to book, let alone take, the trip that I always thought would be our 10th anniversary trip. But fast forward a few years and one really good airfare sale and here we are.

We’re going to Dubai and then the Maldives. It seems a bit surreal even typing that. The Middle East still seems a bit incomprehensible to me and even though Dubai is the Vegas of the region, I know there is a bit of good culture shock that will happen (I hope). And the Maldives… look I know now they are the expensive resort islands but when I was a kid, no one knew anything about the Maldives. People didn’t even think that the Maldives were a real country whenever I mentioned it. To be able to get that stamp in my passport is literally a childhood dream come true. Granted, we’re also using hotel points to stay at a very, very nice resort (probably the nicest place I’ll ever stay in my life) so we’re not going to get the full experience of what everyday Maldivian life is like; but I’m still a bit crazy excited about it nonetheless. Overwater bungalows with a private plunge pool will make you a bit silly…

Yes, I hear you – but those places will expose you to a lot of sun. And I’m highly aware of that. I’m still trying to grapple with how I should chart my days to avoid the highest UV levels. Most of my checked bag will be sunscreen. I actually found some long-sleeved lightweight blouses last weekend and plan on digging my swim shirt out, if that counts for anything. And I know that I need to be cautious even while I’m out exploring. But I couldn’t cross these countries off my list of places to see. Without the joy of experiencing new places, I might as well have let the cancer won. And I can’t see that being the reason why it was caught early enough to let me still take these grand adventures.

Upcoming Travel Plans

How Did I End Up a Gypsy?

Astute readers of the blog may know that I’m pretty much addicted to travel. For me, traveling allows me to be more present in the moment, to experience different things, meet different people (whom I have no obligation to be completely personal about things because, well you know me), and see different places.

I came from a family that really didn’t travel. I’m an only child of parents with very limited means. Our sporadic family vacations consisted of going to a campground about an hour from our home for a few nights, or piling in the car to drive to my mom’s sister’s place (read – trailer home) in Indiana. And even those trips weren’t every year or even every other year. Heck, I didn’t stay in a hotel until I was 15 (Days Inn in Niagara Falls in the pre-Internet days when the Niagara Falls Visitor Center guy totally took us for a bunch of rubes and suckered my dad into booking a room on the NY side because the Canadian side was more expensive – it was, in Canadian dollars, which at the time was totally funny money).

So the fact that I spent a great deal of my childhood lying on the floor of the living room with this massive world atlas (a free gift with the purchase of a book-by-the-month encyclopedia set my parent bought me to give me something else to read after I read all of the children’s books in the library by age 5) plotting out journeys to far-flung places quite frankly perplexed my parents. “I’m going to go here someday”, I would say with my chubby little finger pointing to some obscure place on the map of the world. “I’m going to go to the Eiffel Tower someday”, I would randomly announce to my mom when we were in the grocery store and saw the American-style prepackaged loaves of French bread. “Uh huh”, both of my parents would reply to these random outbursts.

To them, traveling to anywhere was just too expensive, a luxury for people who had a salary, not for people who worked hourly wages and have no idea if the plant was going to shut down next week or if the restaurant was going to go under before getting paid. Travel was something other people did, but not us. Even the thought of getting a passport is still something my parents grapple with – “gee, that’s a lot of money and then you still have to get your picture taken…” I’ve tried for years to pay the passport fees as their Christmas present and use fear as the tactic – “You know mom and dad, you don’t have a passport and if something happens to me while I’m traveling, the only people that will be able to get me are the in-laws” and that still hasn’t swayed them!!

So, how did I end up a gypsy, as my parents called me? I got on my first airplane ride when I was 10 and I never looked back. I’ve gone to Europe, to South America, to Central America, and I’m 3 states shy of getting all 50. My list to go-to is still bigger…I get a little giddy just reading travel blogs and guide books to places I have no immediate plans on visiting. Travel is apparently my one and only hobby (well, aside from sporadic blogging) in all shapes and forms – whether actively traveling to just browsing the airfare sales for my home airport for fun.

I read a lot of books about neuroscience (nerd alert) and obviously the travel thing can’t be nurture because this obsession of mine is not present in either of my parents. So is there a genetic component? Maybe it’s on the same chromosome as whatever made me susceptible to skin cancer (also something neither of my parents has)? And honestly, it’s not because I’m an extrovert. And I’m fairly risk-adverse so there’s no thrill from the element of risk you take when you travel.

I’m thinking about all of this because my husband and I have a fairly big trip coming up, and it’s to some of those places that fascinated me as a young girl studying the atlas. I’ll talk more about that in the next post because this one is already getting to be too long!

How Did I End Up a Gypsy?