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Jessica Melore's Story

Jessica Melore

“I have access to the best care in the world.”

"How many times does lightening strike in one place?" That's what Jessica Melore, 37, was thinking when she heard the words "you have endometrial cancer" in 2015. It wasn't the first time she heard the word "cancer," though — it was her third.

Her ordeal actually began in 1998 with something completely unrelated to cancer, and unexpected for a girl who was just 16 years old. While out to dinner with her family in New Jersey, she felt dizzy and had pain in her chest and neck, and her arms felt like lead. She was having a heart attack. A blood clot had lodged in an artery, and ultimately destroying the left side of her heart.

She needed a transplant, but no hearts were available. Her doctors implanted a mechanical device called a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to aid her ailing heart, but a complication impaired the circulation to her left leg. It became infected and needed to be amputated above the knee. "The doctors said if they didn't amputate, the infection might have spread to my heart, and I could have died," Jessica recalls. Finally, in 1999, a heart became available, and she had the transplant she had been waiting for. She was 17.

Transplant recipients need to take immunosuppressive medications for the rest of their lives to prevent organ rejection, but they come with risks. For Jessica, that risk came in the form of a rare complication called "post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder" (PTLD). She was diagnosed with large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma at 18, just before her sophomore year at Princeton University. "I'm so grateful for my transplant and it's the reason I'm alive today. There are always risks. With immunosuppressive therapy, it’s a balancing act," says Jessica.

That's when she came to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where she received outpatient chemotherapy under the direction of hematologist-oncologist Dr. Thomas Garrett, starting in July 2000. She achieved remission and, inspired by her experiences, started working for an organ and tissue donation non-profit organization, promoting public education about transplantation.

Life went on until she developed Burkitt lymphoma, another type of lymphoma related to PTLD, in 2007, at age 25. This time, however, her treatment was much more intensive. Because of its possible side effects, Jessica had to stay in the hospital for three weeks at a stretch to receive chemotherapy. With the support of NewYork-Presbyterian's information technology staff, she was able to work from her hospital room. "It meant the world to me. It gave me a sense of purpose every day," notes Jessica. She completed treatment in May 2008.

In the years to follow, she went on to work as a program manager for patient education, outreach, and advocacy for NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center's kidney transplantation program and later as a talent acquisition consultant. Her diagnosis of endometrial cancer came as a shock: she was only 33, much younger than the typical patient with this disease. Under the care of gynecologic oncologist Dr. Jason Wright, at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia, she had a hysterectomy at age 34 followed by chemotherapy that she completed in January 2017.

Jessica now receives all of her follow-up care at NewYork-Presbyterian, including heart care from cardiologist Dr. Sun Hi Lee. "I have access to the best care in the world," she explains. "At all levels, it has been amazing. The doctors' expertise, the encouragement from my nurses, even the people who sang while cleaning my hospital room — they all made a difference in my day."

Today Jessica is a motivational speaker who speaks to all types of audiences, from corporations to elementary school students. She not only shares her story, but volunteers to help others who have endured similar experiences, including young adults who've lost limbs. She speaks about the importance of organ donation and how endometrial cancer can affect young women. She knows her struggles have not been the norm — a heart attack in her teens, endometrial cancer in her 30s — and provides encouragement to others. "Through my work, I can connect with people on a human level and they can find courage, inspiration, and hope," Jessica asserts. "It's a way for me to give back to the world and educate others along the way."

She enjoys traveling and is hoping to get a new prosthetic leg that allows her to play tennis again — a sport in which she excelled in high school, before her heart attack. Despite her ordeal, this model of perseverance feels grateful every day. "When you're struggling with a health condition, there are always things to look forward to," Jessica concludes. "Even when you hit bumps in the road, there are joys to find along the way. It's all part of the journey."

You can learn more about Jessica’s story by visiting www.jessicamelore.com and following her @jessicamelore on Twitter.