Valerie Benkov

Team Dragon Slayer

May 2023

Hi,

My name is Valerie Benkov. I am a stage 3 recurrent Melanoma Warrior. Melanoma is a cancer that oddly has impacted two of my siblings as well. My sister is a fourteen-year Stage One Melanoma survivor. It was because of her I had started and had been regularly going to the dermatologist. I did say siblings. My brother was diagnosed just this year, March 2023. He luckily caught his early due to his awareness and proactively seeking out annual skins scans with a dermatologist. Certainly not a party of three we ever wanted to be defined as.

I had several biopsies over the years, and all were fine. In April 2016, a new mole appeared on my chin. It changed very rapidly over 6 months. In November 2016 following a skin shave of the mole, never did I expect to hear the words, “you have Melanoma”. The shave indicated it was a deep melanoma. A punch biopsy revealed it was more than 1 mm in depth. The depth was critical to possible lymph node invasion. A full chin excision was needed. I was terrified and looked at my husband with tears streaming down my face wondering about him, wondering about our two boys, (at the time, ages, 12 and 9)

I prayed a lot. I asked for signs from my dad who at the time was just passed one year. My father was the toughest person I knew. My dad answered me with a sign. I was out one day just few days after the Melanoma diagnosis. A large poster advertisement caught my eye. It was a portrait of young girl maybe 8-10 years old. She held a knight shield and sword. The tag line was, “be the slayer of your own dragons”. I knew this was my dad reminding me how tough I was, and I had this. It was from that moment on I grounded myself with strength, fierceness and positivity and never looked back on worry or fear. I would be the Dragon Slayer of my Melanoma.

December 18, 2016, my first surgery was a full chin excision, which was five hours and included a sentinel node biopsy. Fourteen lymph nodes where removed, all where clean, no melanoma found in the nodes in my neck. December 23, 2016, I was back in surgery because the margins of the chin excision were not clear. More dermis needed to be removed from up under my lip. The second surgery was 3-hours long which include the start of reconstruction of my chin.

Fast forward 15 months of healing and continued visits to the dermatologist I was clean, until one morning in March 2018. I woke up to a lump in my neck. I knew immediately Melanoma was back. A needle aspiration confirmed the tumor in my neck was in fact Melanoma. The Dragon Slayer yielded her sword once again. I interviewed 3 different medical institutions both for surgical and oncology opinions. I ended up choosing MSKCC and on May 1, 2018, I had a bilateral neck dissection, a six-hour surgery. The surgery entailed removing not one tumor in my neck, but two. There was a second tumor hiding behind the one we knew was there. The bilateral neck dissection is a surgery to remove all the lymph nodes in the neck. I began Immunotherapy treatments on May 7, 2018, and received the Opdivo(nivolumab) infusion treatments every 4 weeks for a full year. Part of the routine included CAT Scans full body, MRIS head to toe and ultrasounds. In the beginning they were quarterly. By year 4, bi-annually and now in year five, one last set of scans. I made it!

The Dragon Slayer is winning. As I prepare to walk my 2nd walk (thanks for the long pause covid) with CCMAC I WILL BE FIVE YEARS MELANOMA FREE.

I am proud to say that over the past five years I do my part of advocating for raising awareness of melanoma. I know my sharing has touched some. I am especially proud when I hear back that those who hear my story have gone for a skin scan, or re-thought sun safety and tanning beds.

Thank you for supporting my team, The Sibling Dragon Slayers

Valerie

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TEAM DRAGON SLAYER MEMBERS:

–Valerie Benkov — Alex Benkov — Kyle Benkov — Rich Benkov —

— Sunita Rodriguez –Irene Riback — Jessica Banks — Melissa Riback — Lisa Riback —

Donating Only: Theresa Turetzky — Matthew Riback — Georgi O”Donnell — Joan Vitale —

 

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