‘You Are a Miracle:’ Against All Odds, Local Woman Beats Stage 4 Cancer

Karen and Jerry Walker

Diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma in 2005, Karen Walker was declared cancer-free in 2007 following a clinical trial. She relied on the support of the nurses at Renown Health and her husband, Jerry, throughout the entire journey.

Diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma in 2005, Karen Walker was given two to 24 months to live.

Fast forward to 2007. After several rounds of treatment at Renown Infusion Services, trips to San Francisco and a clinical trial, her doctor told her: “I don’t know if you realize — you are a miracle.”

Karen’s Journey

In 1995, Karen had cancer removed from her shoulder. Ten years later in 2005, she was walking and could feel a lump in her leg. After a CT scan and biopsy, Karen had surgery at Renown Medical Center in March 2005 to remove part of one of the tumors. The primary biopsy results were that it was cancerous. Five days later, she visited the oncologist, where she learned she had stage 4 melanoma.

At the direction of her physician, Karen was instructed to go to the Northern California Melanoma Center in San Francisco for treatment. At her first visit, her doctor explained, “You’ve got time and we’ll take care of you.”

While there, the Walkers received some advice that Jerry took very seriously: One of the nurses at the center told him to document and keep track of everything throughout Karen’s treatments. And so he did.

“I’m somewhat detail oriented,” Jerry says. “I really took it [documenting Karen’s visits] to heart. It was therapeutic for me, a way for me to take control, stay on top of things and know what is going on.”

As part of her visit to the melanoma center, Karen was prescribed a regimen of treatment at Renown Infusion Services,  and “that was when we met our wonderful nurses,” Karen says. She started the treatment on March 31, 2005, undergoing six cycles that ended in September of 2005.

“But by the end of September, I could tell it was coming back,” she says.

A CT scan confirmed the tumors had returned. She again underwent in-patient treatment in California followed by additional maintenance treatment at Renown from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2, 2005.

Then yet another CT scan revealed the tumors had reappeared. So Karen and Jerry decided to turn to a clinical trial, which Jerry called a “godsend.”

Karen started the trial Feb. 2, 2006, receiving four infusions in San Francisco at the NCMC. Between the second and the third infusions, the tumors shrunk to two-thirds of their original size.

“It was incredible,” Jerry says.

Karen participated in a maintenance program with five more infusions about every 12 weeks until June 2007. She was actually declared cancer-free on March 21, 2007.

Karen’s Support System

Following a nurse’s suggestion, Jerry kept detailed notes in several notebooks throughout his wife’s treatments.

“Without his support, this would have been very, very tough,” she says. “He’d meet me every day at lunch and we’d walk at Virginia Lake, and we changed our diet. We are both committed to a healthy lifestyle, eating, exercising and relaxation.”

While Karen doesn’t look at the notebooks, every once in a while she’ll read emails from her support system to reflect on those who stood by her side.

“I look at emails to remind me of what I went through and to be grateful for the support I have and where I’m at,” she says.

In addition to her husband, Karen found a great source of support from her nurses in Infusion Services, describing the nurses as “encouraging and caring.” Karen remembers one specific instance where Rosa Cortez, RN, helped her in a difficult moment.

“I wasn’t supposed to lose my hair, but I felt like it was falling out and I was concerned about it,” Karen explains. “Rosa asked me what was wrong and I said ‘I’m concerned about my hair.’ Rosa said something like, ‘that’s the least of your worries – look at how well you’re doing.’”

Jerry adds, “The nurses in infusion were our lifeline.”

Cortez calls Karen a survivor and a hero, and credits Jerry as an amazing caregiver.

“She never lost her drive to live,” Cortex says. “She was always extremely positive for the fight and she won. It’s unheard of to have survivors totally in remission from stage 4 melanoma. She was near death and she came out of it, and went to a medical trial and it saved her life. That’s what I tell people –always stick to it because something will come along and it will save your life.”   

Karen also tells others to be positive and know you can beat the diagnosis.

“Do the treatment, but take control and do whatever brings you solace — the diet, eliminating sugar and things that aren’t good for you,” she says. “But don’t block yourself from people – too often people say they don’t want anybody to know. I do want to have people be involved for support. When I let people know – it’s phenomenal the support I had.”