Melanoma and My Journey
It was August 2007, I had just come home from work and was happily sitting down and enjoying a meal with my wife Dayna. “So I got your test results back from that scab on the back of your leg – its melanoma,” my wife announced, who happened to be finishing her medical residency as an Anesthesiologist. “Melanoma? What is that?” I said with a bit of a chuckle. “It’s skin cancer… not good! You’ll need surgery.” replied Dayna. I remember being absolutely shocked when I heard the word cancer. What do you mean cancer, I’m just 35! I remember fearfully and instantly thinking, will I need chemo? What will happen to me?
This was the start of my melanoma journey; one that started in August 2007 and continues today. But thankfully the journey continues. This December I will turn 43 years old and for the past 8 years I’ve had many ups and downs with melanoma, however I can honestly say that I am a stronger and better person for the journey. I have learned so much about myself and what matters most to me.
In September 2007 I had two surgeries, a lymph node biopsy in my right groin and a skin graft on the back of my right leg. Thankfully my lymph nodes were clear and I merrily continued down life’s path, however the fear of recurrence was always in the back of my mind. Within a month of my diagnosis my father was diagnosed with melanoma on his back and this made me think there could be a genetic link to my skin cancer. So for four and half years I had regular check-in appointments with my dermatologist due to my high risk of melanoma recurrence. Each time I met with the dermatologist they would quote me the risks and stats of recurrence which I tended to ignore because 1) it scared the daylights out of me and 2) I was absolutely convinced that I was done with this melanoma thing — after all I was still a young, healthy man; I felt good and nothing bad really ever happens to me!
On April 17, 2012 I had a one of my regular appointments with my dermatologist, however this time I was concerned about a small pea-sized lump that had formed under my skin at the margin of my skin graft on the back of my leg. I remember as the dermatologist and his resident excised the small lump, the dermatologist remarked to his resident, “See that? That is cancer.” My heart instantly sank. I was devastated.
Instantly I was hooked up with the best melanoma surgeon in the city – the same surgeon that did my lymph node biopsy back in 2007. However, this time my nodes were positive – not a good diagnosis. I was required to have a further and very long surgery to remove all the lymph nodes in my right groin.
Just prior to my full lymph node clean out surgery on May 31, 2012… staying positive!!!
Once I had recovered from the surgeries I was offered Interferon. One of my worst fears. For me the only thing worse than the stats on the success of Interferon was the side effects of the treatment, however what else could it do? In the end I decided not to take the Interferon and opted for a naturopathic treatment of high-dose vitamin C and an alkaline diet, and regular exercise. Although, not recognized as a legitimate form of treatment by western medicine, it did give me hope as it was something I could do and I felt good about it.
For the next year and a half I felt good. But during this time I kept getting lump recurrences in my right leg. With my good surgeon on speed dial I was fortunate to get each recurring lump quickly excised and each time getting a PETSCAN to determine if there was any spread. Thankfully no spread! Although I felt like my life was a roller coaster ride of ups (clear scans) and downs (recurrences) I remained quite content. I was still able to work, I had great friends and family, I was still living life the way I wanted. I felt blessed for each and every day.
On November 28, 2013 I received a call from my surgeon at work. I had four cancerous lumps in my lungs. “OMG I am a ticking time-bomb!” I thought. So what do you do when you find out that you have stage IV skin cancer? You go to Vegas! Honestly, I would recommend this to anyone who gets such a diagnosis.
On December 30, 2013 I started treatment on a randomized blind study of nivolumab monotherapy. Although I still don’t know what treatment I received (they suspect nivolumab combined with ipilimumab), I immediately had a strong reaction. Within a week of my first treatment I got a number of small blisters on my right leg – a good reaction – and one that my surgeon and oncologist believe is a result of the immunotherapy treatment targeting micro cancer spots throughout my leg. I had a few minor side effects of sore muscles and itchiness, but on July 14, 2014 I received the best call ever from my oncologist indicating that I had a complete and full response to the treatment. All the cancerous lumps in my lungs had completely disappeared! BEST DAY EVER!!!!
Before and after shot of my lungs. December 2013 red arrow showing target cancerous lesion and July 2014 a complete a full response to immunotherapy treatment. No cancer!
Almost a year and a half later I am still clear as a bell. I continue the trial treatment and have CT SCANs every 12 weeks. I am blessed!
What have I learned through this journey?
- I am not invincible — as a young 35 year old man I could not accept that cancer could ever affect me. I was very naïve but have awakened to this harsh reality.
- Early detection and rapid response — I believe there are two people that are responsible for me still being alive today. Dayna Leighton, who back in 2007 knew that I had skin cancer on my leg and took the initiative to get it diagnosed and into follow-up surgery and scans, and Dave Olson, my amazing surgeon and great friend who so vigilantly and skillfully performed multiple excisions, surgeries and, with the oncology team at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton, set me up on a world-leading immunotherapy trial.
- Stress is a killer — you need to do whatever you can to reduce stress. Life can be stressful, and getting diagnosed with cancer is very stressful. If you don’t deal with this stress, I believe it compounds your risks for spread. For me exercise is an absolute must; I cannot function in a positive mental state unless I am active on a regular and sustained basis.
- Develop a support system for yourself and those closest to you — you need friends and family to support you through your cancer journey. And I believe the support must be provided in a positive, hope filled environment. I have also learned that those closest to you need support as well; don’t under-estimate the impact a cancer diagnosis has on those that love you… they need support as well!
- Make a plan for your new normal. So you have cancer, what are you going to do about it? Don’t just leave it in the hands of doctors; make a plan of how you are going to live with this new reality of cancer. No one knows you more than you, so make a plan and seize the day. The worst thing you can do is feel sorry for yourself. My journey has taught me about who I am and what is most important to me. I now live my life more deliberately focused on my passions and the people that mean the most to me.