Cancer survivor Fitts '09 shares stories of strength and survival

Release Date: 10/16/2012

Melanie Fitts, a 2009 alumna from Farmington, Ark., was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in early 2011 at the young age of 24. With her trademark determination and quick sense of humor, Fitts is now cancer free and returned to campus this week to share her story as part of the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Melanie Fitts

Melanie Fitts, a 2009 Ozarks graduate, returned to campus this week to share her battle with breast cancer with the campus community as part of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Fitts' fight to survive breast cancer may have scarred her body, but her quick wit and easy sense of humor remain unscathed. Her presentation to Ozarks students, faculty and staff combined poignant moments of honesty, laced with dry humor as Fitts described her struggle to survive and her determination to remain true to herself.

"It was January 2011. Just before my 25th birthday," Fitts began. "I had noticed a lump in my left breast, but at my age, I wasn't really worried about breast cancer. I just happened to be at home in Farmington, so I went to see my doctor."

"At first, the doctors were sure it was nothing. 'You're too young,' they said. But after several ultrasounds and a biopsy, the diagnosis was bad," Fitts explained. "Telling my family was the difficult part of the initial news. We're super close, and I knew it would be hard for everyone. I mean, it's cancer. You just have to say that word, and everyone freaks out."

Fitts' doctors didn't waste any time getting her into treatment. A stage four cancer diagnosis means the cancer is aggressive and has spread to other body parts. Fitts had to begin chemotherapy immediately.

"They told me I needed to start chemotherapy the next Monday morning. My cancer was so advanced they couldn't even attempt surgery before shrinking the tumor. I thought, 'Awesome…chemo,'" she quipped.

"I ended up doing eight rounds of chemo," she said. "Normally, you do it once a month. I got to do it every other week. I had to do four different types of chemo. The worst was Adriamycin. They call it The Red Devil. It's a red-orange color, and you have to chew on ice while you're taking it because it leaves sores in your mouth. You can feel the chemicals coming out through your mouth."

"But, even with chemo, I didn't stop living. I would go to chemo on Friday, spend the weekend with my parents, then go back to Oklahoma City, where I live, to work on Monday. Talk about tired. I was exhausted. I would go home after work and sleep. It was terrible, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do," she shrugged.

Fitts' would need every ounce of her natural strength and strong family support system to push her through eight separate surgeries and eight weeks of daily radiation treatments over the next year and half.

"So, here we are. Eight rounds of chemo, eight surgeries, and eight weeks of radiation later. My cancer was stage four. Stage five is the highest. Stage five basically means you're dying.  But, here I am…stage four and I didn't die," Fitts grinned.

She laughed and explained, "It's kind of funny. Whenever I talk to people about my cancer, and I tell them it was stage four, their reaction is always 'Oh my gosh, I'm glad you're alive!' I'm always like, 'Thanks. Me too!' "

"But, the thing is," Fitts said soberly, "I didn't ever think I could die. That never even entered my mind. I always knew I was going to beat this. I was not going to let this control me. I told myself I was going to keep doing everything I wanted to do. I think I did a pretty good job of it too."

"Like when I lost my hair. It would come out in chunks, and it was really disgusting. So, I decided I was taking it under my control, and I shaved my head," she said.

Fitts may have been determined to retain as much of her normal life as possible, but she willingly admits that struggling to survive such a dire diagnosis has changed her outlook on life.

"This has changed me a lot," Fitts said. "I don't worry about the little things anymore. I realize that stuff is so small compared to what I've already gone through. Fighting for your life is massive compared to little things that go wrong every day."

"I will never again complain about a bad hair day. A bad hair day is better than a no hair day," she smiled.

Since it is so unusual for someone so young to be diagnosed with breast cancer, Fitts feels like it is important to share her story of dealing with and beating a cancer diagnosis.

"I'm happy to talk to people about my story. I want to make sure people know that others have been through it too. My plastic surgeon will refer patients to me who are really struggling with breast cancer, especially if they're young. I'm always happy to help talk them through it," Fitts said.

Fitts had her final surgery last Friday and is anxious to begin life without routine cancer treatment. She plans to enroll in dental school and eventually work as an orthodontist. She currently lives in Oklahoma City.