Jessica and Chris Mueller’s lives had begun to fall in place.
They had just welcomed a little boy named Max.
Jessica had accepted her dream job in California. The couple was preparing for a big move in two months to the West Coast.
“Our lives were finally what we planned it to be,” she said.
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In October 2013, three weeks after Max was born, Jessica was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma cancer. The recovery rate was 10 to 15 percent.
“The cancer hit and totally threw us off track,” she said.
Before her diagnosis and while she was pregnant, Jessica experienced severe back pains, so severe she couldn’t stand to walk for more than a minute at a time.
“The doctor said, ‘You’re pregnant. That’s normal.’ At the end it was debilitating,” she said.
Jessica gave birth to her son via cesarean section in Cincinnati. The couple had planned to live with Jessica’s parents for two months before moving to California.
But after Max was born the back pain was so severe Jessica ended up in the emergency room. That is when doctors found a 2-inch tumor on her spinal cord.
A biopsy revealed the tumor was melanoma.
“For me, the biggest thing was I was worried I would not be able to see my little boy grow up,” she said.
“I didn’t even know if I was going to make it to Christmas or see his first steps.”
A week later she had spinal surgery to remove the tumor.
“I also had more places that had metastasized all throughout my skeletal system. Luckily, it wasn’t in any organs or anything like that, but it was all throughout my bones and my spine,” she said.
The tumor had burst Jessica’s T5 vertebra, in the central section of her spine, so doctors removed it and replaced it with cement and titanium rods.
“My spinal surgeon said he was shocked I could even walk and was not paralyzed because the tumor crushed my vertebra and was pushing into my spinal cord,” she said.
“My back had hurt so bad for so long I was actually looking forward to the surgery like, ‘Get this out of me. I want this gone.’”
Jessica went through radiation for two weeks after surgery. It drained her energy.
With a newborn baby boy at home, she had to rely on her husband, family and friends to help.
“My support system was absolutely amazing. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. After my back surgery I couldn’t even lift more than five pounds for about a month. I wasn’t able to hold him on my own. I would have to have somebody put him in my arms while I was sitting,” she said. “I needed a lot of help and I got it, so that’s good.”
After radiation, Jessica began immunotherapy for six months, a treatment which uses parts of a person’s own immune system to fight diseases like cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Then, doctors moved her to maintenance treatment where she received infusions once every three weeks. After four doses, she was moved to an infusion once every three months.
She never went alone. Max often went with her to doctor appointments and her treatments.
“The whole medical staff loved seeing him and has watched him grow up,” she said.
Her mother and Chris would take turns driving her to her appointments when she couldn’t — which at one point was 14 appointments in one week.
Jessica received her last infusion treatment this February. She will have back pain for the rest of her life and she is still getting her energy back, she said.
She has had no evidence of disease for two years now. Melanoma doctors won’t put patients in remission for at least 10 years because the recurrence rate is 87 percent. “I don’t plan to be in that percentage,” Jessica said.
‘I will beat this’
She said she owes her recovery to her son.
“What I just decided is I wanted to see him grow up and I was not going to be the majority,” she said.
“I wanted to be the 10 to 15 percent that survive. Every time I would start to get scared or upset, I would just hold my little boy until the fear passed. I would just hold him and say, ‘I will beat this, I will beat this, I will beat this.’ He was my main drive to get better.”
Jessica also found herself seeking out success stories as a way to cope with her diagnosis and illness.
“Unfortunately, people don’t really think, and they’ll tell you, ‘Oh, I knew somebody who had cancer, but they passed away.’ They think they have good intentions,” she said.
“When somebody would tell me, ‘Oh, yeah, we know somebody and they’ve been alive for 15 years after.’ I would go out of my way to look for a success story.”
One story that comes to mind is that of a woman who was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma in the 1970s, when there wasn’t any treatment, who had survived.
“Just to hear one person who also had it and that was still alive today, 30 years later, was huge for me,” she said.
After living with Jessica’s parents for a year in Cincinnati, the Muellers moved to Indianapolis. Jessica was still receiving treatments, but was doing much better, she said.
Jessica, whose last name was Howe when she worked in Brown County, worked as an adult case manager at Centerstone in Nashville from 2008-10. Prior to that she worked at Brown County High School as a special education paraprofessional one semester and a math teacher the second.
Chris taught in the moderate to severe needs special education room for about two years. Prior to that, he was a student teacher in the high school.
Jessica’s friend and former Brown County resident Paula Roberts staged a fundraiser in Brown County and raised $800 to help pay Jessica’s medical bills.
Now, Jessica lives in Lawrenceburg where she works in real estate.
Max will turn 3 this month.
For the first year of his life, he had to have CT scans to make sure the melanoma didn’t transfer to him while he was in the womb. Melanoma is one of two cancers that can transfer to an unborn baby.
“It’s rare. It does not happen often, but it has happened before, so we wanted to be extra careful. But luckily, he handled all of the CT scans well and there was no evidence of disease anywhere,” Jessica said.
She recently joined a support group on Facebook. She also volunteers with a local melanoma group in Cincinnati.
When asked what she would share with someone who is battling cancer, Jessica shares her rule of thumb: “I needed to remain positive 90 percent. The other 10 percent of the time I could throw things, get angry, yell, do whatever I needed to do to, mourn and grieve and be mad.
“But the remaining 90 percent of the time I needed to remain positive, and I truly 100 percent believe that that makes a big difference in getting through it,” she said.
“My spinal surgeon sat me down with my whole family and said, ‘This is very serious. If you do not remain positive, you are already dead.’ It was very blunt, but it was exactly what I needed to hear.”
Immediate family: Son Max, 3
Cancer: Stage IV melanoma