Meredith McNerney

Young Woman's Rare Skin Cancer Inspires Her Efforts to Help Others Fighting Cancer


Meredith McNerney

In 2007, Meredith McNerney was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer known as Merkel Cell Carcinoma (MCC). The cancer formed a tumor on her face which required three surgeries to remove. Following her treatment, Meredith came to the attention of Dr. Anthony Gaspari, a specialist in the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center's Cutaneous Oncology Program, who was treating several of her family members for a genetic skin cancer-prone syndrome.

It was February 26, 2007 -- my 31st birthday. My young daughters and I celebrated with lunch. I remember that I couldn't wait for my husband, Mark, to get home from work, though I don't remember our plans for the evening, because at 3:13 p.m. I received a phone call that changed my life forever and shattered whatever plans we may have had.

I had visited my dermatologist the week before my birthday to have a cyst removed from my face. The call I received came from my dermatologist's office, and the nurse said, "Meredith, we received the pathology report, and we need you to come in tomorrow."

"Why?" I asked.

"You have Merkel Cell Carcinoma (MCC). It's cancer."

I asked the nurse for the spelling, wrote the name quickly and hung up the phone. In my research, I read that Merkel Cell is a very aggressive and rare form of cancer. It often spreads rapidly and, when it does, most patients die within nine months. With my children in sight, I had to be strong -- and wait. My husband came home from work that day, and I explained everything to him.

The cancer had formed a tumor on my face and quick plans were made to remove it. My surgeon explained how he would literally "connect the dots" on my face. He would start at the site of the tumor and mark two centimeters north, south, east and west along my face to then connect the points and create a circle. Then just like using an ice-cream scooper, he would "scoop" out the tumor to rid my face of this disease.

One thing that I've learned through this experience is that, while none of us will ever be fully free of hardship, we are in control of one thing -- how we handle what we cannot control. Suddenly facing cancer was not just about the treatments, the surgeries, the chance of dying, but it was also about me as a woman. I wondered how I would look after the surgeries were over. Held in tension between thoughts of hope and heartache, I decided to turn to God and surrender. I redefined my beauty and learned to fully embrace my spirit.

Around this same time period, my brother and his children were being treated for skin warts by Dr. Anthony Gaspari in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Dr. Gaspari started to inquire about our family history and ran blood tests on both of my parents to see if they carried the gene that caused the warts. Neither of them are carriers. My brother and my parents mentioned that I had just been diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma. Dr. Gaspari asked if I would be willing to come in for the same family testing.

From the moment I met him, I knew that I was blessed to be in the presence of such a brilliant doctor. He gave me answers to questions I had had for years. Although much of the research continues, I have a great admiration and respect for his dedication to finding answers.

It is now three years since my diagnosis. Because MCC is so aggressive, surviving three years is an amazing milestone -- which also most likely means a cure.

The aftermath of cancer has meant more than just accepting my appearance. My mission in life has changed and my focus is now on spreading a message of hope to people who are now in the same position I once was. My family and friends helped me start a nonprofit organization to raise money for families who face the monetary burdens associated with cancer. What greater gift could there be than to know that you made a difference in someone's life at a time when hope was hard to find?

Dr. Gaspari comments:

The type of cancer that Meredith had, Merkel Cell Carcinoma, is a rare cancer that usually occurs in individuals 65 years of age and up. It is even rarer in young individuals such as Meredith, who is in her 30's. What is interesting here is that her brother has a genetic skin cancer-prone syndrome called Epidermodysplasia verruciformis (EDV), and her brother's sons both have this as well. This EDV results in marked susceptibility to infection with cancer causing wart viruses, which her brother and his sons have.

Meredith does not have the cancer-causing wart virus as her brother does, but recent studies have shown that Merkel Cell Carcinoma is associated with another kind of cancer-causing virus, called the polyoma virus. In examining achival tissue from her cancer surgery, we found that the polyoma virus was in fact present in Meredith's Merkel cell cancer. Undoubtedly, her susceptibility to the skin cancer is related to her brother's genetic syndrome, but how and why it manifests as it does remains a medical mystery. We are performing surveillance skin checks on Meredith and her daughters to monitor this genetic link.

Editor's Note: A year after her diagnosis, Meredith founded "A Message of Hope" Cancer Fund to provide financial assistance to others facing the financial burden of battling cancer. Meredith has also written a book, Facing Cancer: A Spiritual Journey from Pain to Peace. All proceeds raised from the sale of her book directly benefit her nonprofit foundation.