Robyn Cook, of Princeton, diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma nine months ago, will captain the Robyn’s Warriors team at this Friday’s Relay for Life fundraiser for the American Cancer Society on the Princeton High School track.
Cook has skin cancer. . She said she thinks it spread in her body through the bloodstream by a cell breaking loose when she had a small mole removed from her right shoulder in 2009.
Later, she learned the cancer had spread to her left breast and the left side of her back, and a doctor diagnosed her with the stage 4 melanoma last Oct. 1. The cancer metastasized to her brain by early this year and she had surgery and four gamma-knife radiation treatments to remove the brain tumors.
She had two infusions of chemotherapy, once in January and once in February this year, to fight the melanoma, and an MRI early last month showed that her brain was clear of tumors. She also had a PET scan about the same time at the Mayo Clinic and it showed that the only possible concern was something under her left arm, and doctors aren’t sure if that is melanoma or a dead lymph node, Cook said.
Cook said that from the time she was diagnosed until the present, the only time she didn’t feel well physically was when she had the chemotherapy treatments.
There is no such thing as a remission with melanoma, Cook said, and added that her urologist told her that when a person has a brain tumor, there is an 80 percent chance it will grow back.
Cook, therefore, has to get an MRI every four months to keep track of her health status.
Cook, longtime manager of the Princeton Health & Fitness Center in Princeton, said last week that she is feeling healthy enough now to go back to working out.
Cook spoke with an upbeat tone.
“I’m pretty darn lucky,” she said. “I treat every day as a gift and take everything day by day.” She said this is a change in her way of looking at life that was brought on by having cancer.
“I try to look every day for something to be thankful for, even if it is a bad day. … And that is important,” Cook said. “There’s always someone worse off then you. I am thankful for my family and friends.”
Relay For Life involvement
Cook said the cancer diagnosis also made her want to be involved in the Relay For Life, where teams raise pledges and take turns walking for nearly 12 hours.
She had seen the posters advertising the Relay For Life events over the years and thought about it. But it wasn’t until her diagnosis and experiencing the help that volunteers with the American Cancer Society gave her when she was at the Mayo Clinic that she decided to get involved in the Relay, she said.
The volunteers are “wonderful,” Cook said. “They offer hand massages and serve juice (to hospital cancer patients).” Rochester has places to stay if an outpatient at the Mayo, or family members of the patient, can’t afford regular lodging there, she added.
Cook said she got caught up in the spirit of the Relay after hearing a talk during a meeting of the Relay For Life captains. The speaker explained the structure of the Relay and its significance – that the relay begins in daylight, proceeds through darkness and ends in daylight, Cook said. The relay starts out well before sunset, and as early evening melds into night and the sun sets, the darkness symbolizes how a person might feel “when the cancer is looming and it’s scary,” Cook explained.
Then as the sun rises during the last part of the Relay, it’s a new day and the person celebrates life, she said.
After hearing that talk, “I just felt a lot more dedicated to the cause,” Cook said. “That’s why I am doing it. There is a better reason. It is more significant to me.”
Cook notes that the 12 members of her “Robyn’s Warriors” team are either survivors of cancer, are dealing with cancer or have a loved one who has cancer.
The Robyn’s Warriors team, besides Cook, consists of Teresa Pfaff, Lindsey Pfaff, Carey Steele, Tricia Schlichting, Hailey Schlichting, Kathleen Fine, Cook’s husband Keith Cook, Ashley Heitschmidt, Regina Heitschmidt, Logan Hershey and Cook’s daughter Hanna Johnson.
Cook offers encouragement to people who become diagnosed with cancer, noting that some people have told her, “I don’t think I could do that (manage to be positive). You’re so strong.”
Cook’s response is this: “You don’t know how strong you are until you have to be.” Cook added that she doesn’t think of herself as a strong person and that when someone is put in the situation of finding out they have cancer, “they have to be strong.”
Cook acknowledged that it isn’t easy dealing with a cancer diagnosis.
“It’s so overwhelming,” she said. “It was probably the hardest day of my life.”
Cook, a native of St. Louis Park, moved to Princeton in 1994 and a decade later became the manager of Princeton Health & Fitness. She represented the business as a person who kept herself fit. She recalled her doctor at the Mayo Clinic, Svetomir Markovic, telling her when she was diagnosed that she was his healthiest patient.
Cook said she is very lucky to have Markovic as her doctor, describing him as “very cutting edge” in being up to date on new medical developments and on her type of cancer.
“He lives, eats and sleeps melanoma,” she said. “He’s the perfect doctor. He always has something in his bag of tricks. He will go outside the United States to find a drug.”
Cook is also an advocate of protecting the skin from too much sun with a broad spectrum SPF 50 protectant from UVB and UVA rays and said that suntan lotion is not a skin protectant. Also, it’s important to know if someone in your family has had melanoma because then your chance of getting melanoma is 20 percent higher than normal, she said. Cook added that using a tanning bed also increases the melanoma risk by 20 percent.
The Robyn’s Warriors Relay team will be offering participants in the Relay a small knapsack with items designed to help soothe the spirit, each with a slip of paper explaining the item’s symbolism.
Cook described some of the contents as follows: “An eraser to fix all small mistakes, a penny so you are never broke, a rubber band to help you stretch beyond your dreams, a lock to keep all your secrets safe, a star to keep shining and a paper clip to help hold things together.”