By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — Paula Yarger is a triumphant woman. Strong-willed and full of a survivor’s instinct, she sits next to her husband, James Yarger, on their couch in their Town of Niagara home one Saturday. They’re taking a much-deserved break.
They’d spent a few days preparing their house for professional painters, while at the same time beginning work on creating a new, special room inside for an exciting package on the way.
Yarger, 41, is seven months pregnant with the couple’s first child.
She’s thrilled to be pregnant, a minor miracle considering her age and the biology of women’s reproductive lifespans. But considering how she and her husband arrived at this point, minor is the last word she’d use to describe her life.
It all goes back to the summer of 2006, when the 34-year-old retail worker noticed an unusual growth forming on the side of her face. She’d recently had a mole surgically removed from the exact spot months before. Something told her she needed to get it checked out.
“Everyone told me not to worry, that it’s probably an infection, it’s probably a keloid,” she said. “They removed it. Afterward, I called them because no one called me, and (Dr. Thom Loree) said, ‘Pauline, can you come in?’ I said ‘No, I’m at work,’ and he said, ‘I’m sorry Pauline, it’s melanoma.’ “
She had a rough time taking the news, considering it’s the most dangerous type of skin cancer, but scheduled a lymph nodal biopsy immediately.
The news only got worse when she did get in to see her doctor. Her life was about to change for the next half-decade.
“He walked in the room with his head down,” Paula said. “I’m staring at him. He said, ‘Well, the good news is, it’s out of your face. The bad news is, it’s in your central lymph node.’ I said, ‘What does this mean?’ He said ‘50/50.’ “
It turned out her melanoma was diagnosed as stage three malignant, indicating it had spread. They decided not to wait, though they considered holding off until after Christmas so she could work. Paula was OK with waiting. But James felt differently.
Ultimately, he won.
“(Dr. Loree) said it wouldn’t make much of a difference,” James said. “But there were (several) steps where they’d removed tissue from her face and every time they’d done it, it had spread. So it was aggressive and it was fast. So my instinct was if they’re misjudging how fast this is repeatedly, we’re not going to wait until January. So I called him the next day and implored him. He accommodated us.”
So she went under the knife Dec. 5 that year, with Loree removing several cancerous nodes.
It was a debilitating procedure, originally intended to last five hours. Designed to be aggressive to fight the cancer by cutting it out of the body before it spread, Paula’s time on the operating table doubled to 10 hours that night.
“We had to do radical neck dissection,” she said. “He said, ‘I have to catch the melanoma before it gets ahead of me. I have to remove all of the lymph nodes from the side of your neck.’ ”
The next day she was up and moving, walking around the hospital. She was cleared for release and prescribed a one-year run on Interferon, a medication designed to keep the cancer from returning.
It came with side effects, though, which hit Paula hard as bricks. It didn’t take long for her to figure out her life wouldn’t be the same. She was about to turn from what she thought was a cancer survivor into a patient. Her struggles were only just beginning.
“I thought I could work and do it, too,” she said. “That was my big thing. I was going to work. So the first day (of treatment), I was all dressed up. The nurses were like, ‘Oh, Pauline, where ya going?’ And I said ‘I’m going to work.’ She gave me a list of things I needed to do. She told me about the rigors, the shakes. She said, ‘If you get the rigors, call Roswell and Tylenol works really well with Interferon.’
“So I go to work. I remember the women were all talking at the cosmetic section and I was alone for the night. I remember my feet turning into blocks of ice and it started creeping up my legs. I ran up to the bathroom and there was this rash all over my legs.
“I ran back downstairs and I was standing there, hunched over. The girls from the cosmetic company all stopped talking and looked over at me and asked if I was OK. I was starting to shake, so I get on the phone and I called Roswell. There’s customers walking around, people are crying. I passed out in the back room, no one knew where I was. I woke up ... and grabbed my bags and as I was walking out, I was like ‘You’re not going to come back from this.’ I knew I was never going to work there again.”
During her treatments, she went through several other side effects, including a scare with her vision. Doctors still don’t understand how she made it through her year’s worth of treatment without losing her eyesight, which was degenerating about eight months into the regimen.
But the damage to her body was done. She turned gray, was lifeless in her day-to-day activities and struggled to physically climb stairs.
“There was no confetti or tears,” James said of her completing the medication. “She just came home and went to sleep for a couple years.”
A few years after the medication stopped, there’s no sign of further cancer. It still presents a considerable risk, given recurrence rates, but they’ve finally been able to move forward with their lives.
And the pregnancy is pushing them forward. They were concerned initially that the drug’s chemicals may have damaged her reproductive ability. They also knew biology was creeping around in the shadows. So they sought help.
“Everything became this big craps shoot,” James said. “But the eggs were good. They were tested and the egg quality was good. With some of these silver linings I’d noticed along the way, that was another silver lining.”
Now they’re preparing for their Halloween baby, who’s due to arrive Oct. 28. Considering what they’ve had to endure the past seven years, whatever happens next, they’ll be strong enough to deal with it.
“I guess God pushes you to the edge and sees how much you can take,” James said. “When I married her, I didn’t know she had the ability to dig down deep. I also didn’t know about myself, that I had the ability to be strong until I fell over. You learn a lot about what you’re capable of in life. And that’s important in having a child as well.”
Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.