Sunday will be a different sort of Mother’s Day for Stacey Escalante.
Not bad-different. Just different-different.
Many Southern Nevadans know Escalante from her days as a news reporter for then-KVBC, now KSNV-TV, Channel 3. And, those who do surely remember her battle with stage 3 melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
That was eight years ago. Today, the attractive, witty, determinedly upbeat Escalante is feeling fine, running marathons, heading her own public relations firm and raising her children, Will and Gabriella.
She’s a public speaker who presents programs about the dangers of tanning. She’s a political activist working for passage of a state law that would prohibit people younger than 18 from using indoor tanning beds.
And, in the most significant change in her life post-melanoma, Escalante, 42, this year will spend her first Mother’s Day as a single mom after the end of her marriage late last year.
Escalante has plans for the day that will keep her busy. And even if she didn’t, Escalante would find some way to grab hold of her first post-divorce Mother’s Day and, through sheer force of optimism and will, turn it into a good day whether it wanted to cooperate or not.
That’s just the way she is.
On a recent Thursday evening, Escalante’s modest but comfortable southwest Las Vegas home is busy with activity. Her kids are home and, because Gabriella is scheduled to make her first Communion in just two days, Escalante’s parents have come in from California.
As Escalante and the kids settle in for a pre-dinner game of Clue, conversation revolves around the usual sorts of random things families talk about when catching up on each others’ day. Today, that includes the taste of a Communion wafer (the consensus is “bland”) and why Colonel Mustard pronounces his name in a way that doesn’t match up with the letters.
“It’s spelled C-O-L,” Gabriella notes.
“But it’s ‘colonel,’ ” Escalante says. “That’s how it’s pronounced.”
Escalante grew up in Southern California and landed her first on-air job at the CBS affiliate in Medford, Ore. Ultimately, “my whole thing was to go back to L.A.,” she says, and she was hoping to find a job in either Fresno or Las Vegas as a steppingstone toward that goal.
Las Vegas came through, and Escalante joined KSNV in 1997. By June of 2005, she was enjoying her work, her marriage of three years and her kids, then ages 2 and 6 months.
Escalante is a planner and an optimist. She’s a fan of motivational quotes. She always took care of herself.
“I always thought it out and had it planned the way it was going to go, right?” she says, smiling. “Then eight years ago was the cancer.”
It started with something on her lower back, an itchy, uncomfortable something that looked, she recalls, “like a pencil eraser.”
“I was like the picture of health,” Escalante says. “I didn’t look sick. I was training for a marathon. But I’d never been to a dermatologist.
“So I got a baby sitter to watch the kids. I went to the gynecologist, the ophthalmologist and the dermatologist in one day.”
At the dermatologist’s office, “they thought it was something different. It didn’t look like melanoma,” Escalante recalls.
The mole was removed. However, she says, “I remember them saying, ‘We don’t think it’s anything, but we biopsy everything we do, so we’ll call you.’ ”
Ten days later, “I was in the newsroom getting ready to do my story. My husband was out of town. They told me on the phone: ‘You have melanoma. Do you know what that is?’ I said: ‘Yeah, I’ve heard of it. It’s malignant.’
“(The nurse) said, ‘You’re going to need to see an oncologist right away.’ I was white as a ghost.”
Escalante underwent surgery aimed at preventing the cancer from spreading. But, she says, “at that point, I was like, ‘OK, when can I run again?’
“My whole thing was when can I run again, because I was such a freak about working out and stuff. Then, the doctor was, like, ‘Um, well, you need to be grateful that you’re alive.’ ”
Then Escalante learned that the cancer had spread to a lymph node in her groin. A second surgery followed.
“I’m like the ultimate optimist, sometimes to a fault, probably,” Escalante says. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll be fine.’ I don’t know whether it was denial or just ‘I’ll be OK.’ But I have a full-time career and two young kids and I don’t have time for cancer.”
The second surgery, at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in California, left her lying on her back for seven weeks. While her husband and kids visited on weekends, Escalante found their return to Las Vegas each Monday heart-wrenching.
“I’d just be in the driveway watching them go away, and it was like I wasn’t getting better because I was just, mentally, missing my family,” Escalante says.
Escalante persuaded her oncologist to let her return to Las Vegas to recover. But, even so, “I still had to lay on the couch a couple of weeks,” she says.
Escalante’s intense melanoma treatment regimen — which included injected drugs to strengthen her immune system and scans every three months to ensure the cancer hadn’t spread — lasted about two years. Her family and friends were invaluable, and co-workers at Channel 3 “were awesome,” Escalante says. “They donated sick time and did meals and everything.”
Gabriella was too young to remember much about that time. “What do you remember?” Escalante asks Will.
“How you had to stay on the couch,” Will answers.
“We didn’t really have to tell them,” Escalante explains. “They were so little.”
But now that the kids are older and have heard their mom share her story with school groups, they know the details, too. Escalante recalls once watching a story about cancer on TV with her son.
“Will said something like, ‘You’re OK, right? You’re going to be OK?’ ” Escalante says. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m OK.’ ”
Early on, Escalante decided to go public with her melanoma battle. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make.
“When we had gone public, I really saw how many people were helped by my story being shared. I got hundreds and hundreds of emails from viewers and people who went to a doctor and found cancer early.”
It’s not about her, Escalante stresses, admitting that she feels “uneasy” if people think it’s “about going, ‘Look at me.’ But I get past that because I see all the people that are moved to going to a doctor because of it.
“I had a dermatologist in town who said, ‘I didn’t know who the heck you were, but I had all these people come to my office because of it.’
“It was kind of what God wanted me to do, I guess. And I have friends who say: ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this? Are you gonna make this the focus of your life? How depressing.’ But, to me, it’s therapeutic.”
Escalante regularly speaks about cancer awareness to community groups and students. As a leadership volunteer for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, she meets with state and federal lawmakers to promote issues that involve cancer awareness, prevention and treatment.
Cindy Roragen, grass-roots relationship manager with the Cancer Action Network, says Escalante’s personal experience helps to make cancer “real to lawmakers. It’s not just scientific data, it’s bringing a personal story and making it real.”
Escalante is “invaluable,” Roragen adds. “And she’s an awful lot of fun to be around, too.”
Escalante has spent several years working for passage of a state law that would prohibit people younger than 18 from using indoor tanning beds. On Friday, she was scheduled to travel to Carson City to speak to legislators in support of Assembly Bill 267.
“We’ve never gotten this far with it,” says Escalante, who is certain that her own sun-loving, tan-seeking days while growing up in California — and then regularly patronizing tanning salons after moving to Las Vegas — are responsible for her melanoma.
Make no mistake: Escalante would be happy if she never had to deal with cancer. But, she says, “I’ve always found the good out of the bad, and there’s so much good that has come out of something that’s so bad.”
Escalante has found that her melanoma battle even “has given me the courage to take other risks in life.”
She left her TV news career in 2007 so that she could spend more time with her children.
She started her own public relations firm. She runs marathons (“It’s my therapy,” she says). And, because she remembers that time when recovering from cancer kept her from fully caring for her kids, she treasures even more dearly spending time with them now.
Those months — those years — underscored to Escalante that “I don’t want to miss out on anything. I really took it to heart that I got a second chance.”
It hasn’t all been easy. Escalante and her husband, Matt, separated in 2011 and divorced in November. The hardest part of divorce, she found, is “not being with (the children) all the time.”
“But I think I’m a better mom because I appreciate those times. We’ve been separated a year-and-a-half, and half of the time, 50-50, I want them to be with their dad. They need their dad.
“I’m a survivor in a lot of ways,” Escalante says, and this Mother’s Day, “I’m in a much better place.
“A year ago, it was really bad. I remember feeling really lonely. This year, I’ve got plans with a friend and her kids. And I just did one of the hardest runs of my life, and I’m so proud of that.
“They say time heals,” Escalante adds, smiling. “And I’m just so glad I’m a year farther down the road.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.