Trust me, I get it…not everyone truly understands this disease-melanoma is the forgotten cancer. Yet, as tears roll down my face onto this keyboard, I am astonished at the ignorance of some people to protect themselves.
However, that was me not to long ago-stubborn as hell thinking it can’t really kill you…can it? I was introduced to melanoma in 2009 when my brother in-law, who I will further refer to as my brother since he has been there for me as one, was diagnosed with melanoma.
At first it was just a mole, his doctor said, only to find out months down the line, once it was removed and biopsied, that is was malignant melanoma.
I remember my sister telling me, and I said, “what’s that”? When she said “skin cancer”, all my worries went out the window. When I think back to this now I wish I could smack myself in the face! She had told me about the stories she Googled and the information she had obtained about the disease. I told her “don’t believe everything you read on Google, that’s the worst thing to do”. My brother had surgery not to long after when they found out that the cancer had spread. He had to get some of his lymph nodes removed. I remember visiting him in the hospital after his surgery.
For those of you who don’t know my brother he is the bravest man I’ve ever met. He smiles death in the face and says; “bring it on” I’m sure. He is a warrior for many and should be an inspiration for us all and this is why I think his story should be told. I don’t remember this surgery too well because as I said I was ignorant to just how serious it was. I do however, remember his face after the surgery, all smiles to see his family. His attitude fed into my “everything will be fine” arrogance…. I’ve never been so wrong in my life…
My brother began his treatments. He had to drive an hour into town to receive his shot from the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. During this time we all had hope that it would not go any further, that this would be it. It’s funny because we pestered my overly sensitive mother that it would be okay and that she was over reacting. Today, I feel like she felt the storm coming. Once his treatment for the interferon was over it was then time for a CT scan. The results were astonishing, his cancer proved to be gone. Wow, malignant melanoma…gone! My sister new the odds were stacked against her and her family but when these results came back I’m sure she felt the world lift off of her shoulders. So after this, life went on for our family. The smart ones, such as my sister and her kids and my mom, were cautious about the sun while others, such as myself, not so much. I’m truly ashamed to say I honestly did not think it was a big deal. I thought melanoma was just a scrape off or one operation type of cancer and then its gone. I was so very wrong to underestimate the power of this monster.
In late 2011 my brother was rushed to the hospital with lower abdominal pain. Once again those black and white pictures that not so long ago brought my family so much joy had just crushed our dreams. My brother had tumors in his lungs, stomach and liver. One of the tumors in his intestines was extremely big and was concluded as being the source of pain. Once again the warrior of my family had to go into battle. The doctors removed parts of his intestines along with one of the so many tumors. This operation was especially painful for it was excruciating to do anything after the surgery. Like I said he’s a fighter and in no time he was back home with his family. We went on with our regular lives after this cherishing every moment we had. My sister, built out of titanium, lived out her life like there was no tomorrow. I don’t know how she does it. I feel like her heart has some type of body armor over it to tell you the truth.
I moved 2 hours away for school and continued my melanoma carefree life. My sister lived only an hour away from my apartment and so I would go spend the night once a week during the semester. I remember siting at the kitchen table studying for an exam when my brother walked into the kitchen complaining about his foot feeling like it was asleep. When I asked him, “like what did it feel like” and he said, “like I’m telling it to move but it wont”. I’m not a doctor yet but I knew this was not good. However, I feed into my beliefs by telling myself maybe it was, worse case, a pinched nerve. That weekend the night before my sister and her family were to leave on their vacation to Walt Disney we spent all day and night in the hospital. My brother went for an MRI. I knew it wasn’t going to be good. The neurologist brought us the most dreadful news we’ve ever gotten so far…themelanoma had spread to his brain. I remember being in shock and trying to keep it together in front of my sister. However, as soon as I walked through those sliding doors at the Royal Victoria Hospital tears poured down my face. I called my mom and we cried and then we sucked it up and said we had to be strong for my sister because crying wont get us anywhere right now.
He went in for his surgery on Friday. I remember sitting in my Chemistry lab trying to finish as fast as I could to drive back to Montreal. I remember stirring the contents in my flask so fast I swear it almost broke. Then my cell phone rang. I dropped everything grabbed my cell and took off out the door. It was my sister, and all had gone well with the operation. A sense of relief traveled through my body. I was no longer in that state of “not knowing”. My sister sent me a photo on my phone of him after the surgery. There’s this thing they do all the time, him and my sister, they make the symbol for “I love you” in sign language. The picture was of my brother all groggy doing the hand symbol. I remember driving home that Friday, and it was the longest drive of my life! I was thinking of all sorts of stuff, like how could this all happen just from skin cancer. I promised my self right then and there that I would never tan again in my life, and that I will make a difference. My brother’s recovery took a while but you could see it in his face that he was a different person. It’s amazing what a neurologist can do. One day he could barely lift his arms and the next he was eating a plate of mac and cheese with a huge smile on his face.
I finished school in the month of April and it was smooth sailing for a while after that. We had to wait for CT scans and the new meds to come in. I still remember being mad. I was madder at my self for being so inconsiderate and stupid about this disease. I kind of treated it like a joke. I was determined to make up for my carelessness. I went on google and typed “Canadian skin cancer foundations”. The list was endless. I wanted to find one that catered more to melanoma. I do understand that all types of skin cancers are dangerous but this one…this one is a monster. I came across the “Save Your Skin Foundation” of Canada and I contacted the president of the foundation. She said that they were doing a symposium in Montreal in about two weeks and we could meet each other there. The day had come and I was so nervous. Not only was I standing in a room with some important doctors but also some amazing people. I started working for the foundation in May. We had spread awareness as much as we could all over Montreal. We handed out free sunscreen, and even threw a fundraiser. The “Save Your Skin Foundation” not only helped me make a difference but they also gave me hope.
My brother was supposed to start his new treatment “ipi”. I’ve heard a lot about this drug and even met some stage four melanoma survivors. This was it, I thought, this would be the medication that saves my brothers life! For those of you who don’t know me, I am a very realistic person. I don’t like having false hope. I tend to prepare for the worst but hope for the best. When I heard that he was going to be getting the “ipi” I was ecstatic. I thought this would really make a difference. He began his treatment, which he would get every three weeks. The medication made him so sick that he would no longer eat. I remember as the weeks past I began to see my brother slowly wither away. His diet consisted of boost and bananas. Everything upset his stomach, even the smell. It was just a couple of weeks after his last treatment that he began to have severe stomach pain. My sister begged him to go to the hospital and he finally did. They rushed him to the Royal Victoria in an ambulance. They gave him another scan and found out that the tumor in his stomach had progressed. I remember when my sister told me, and I wasn’t too worried about it. The thing is with “ipi”; things get worse before they get better.
I was sitting in the hospital room waiting for my brother to come back from his MRI. Once he came back we sat and talked, and went for a walk outside.
When we arrived back into the room his gastroenterologist came to see him. She wanted to make sure that we were all on the same page. She began by saying there’s nothing else that she could do for his stomach tumor. It is too large and entangled around his intestines. She also said that she spoke to his oncologist who said that there was nothing else they could really do for him besides keep him comfortable with medication.
As odd as it sounds, I shut out this entire conversation until now. I wanted to pretend that it was not happening, I guess. My sister was not there that day because she had just started a new job and was not allowed to miss a day. He remained in the hospital for about a week and a half. I went to visit him everyday. I remember one day in particular I had went up to see him with my best friend we brought him some cookies and coffee. We stayed for about and hour and a half and then made our way to the bus stop. As I was waiting for the bus I had gotten a call from my sister. I remember the conversation word for word. She had spoken to his oncologist who basically told her that there was nothing else he could do. He said that none of his tumors were operable and that my sister should begin to look into hospices’. It was like an eruption of tears and anger. All that I was trying to hide and ignore had eventually blown up right in my face. I remember thinking…he’s going to die…because of this disease…that I in one moment in time looked at as if it was nothing to fear. I guess it is true- ignorance is bliss. I cried the entire drive home. I was mad at everything and anything. I felt like I was always trying to stay strong and not cry to be there for my sister, but that night it was my turn to fall apart.
He was eventually able to go home about four days later. The pain had suppressed and his appetite had come back to almost normal. About a week after this he had an appointment with his neurologist. My sister called my mom as soon as it was over. I remember my mom putting her on speakerphone. She told us that the neurologist never said he wouldn’t operate on him. He said he would have to speak to my brother’s oncologist in order to determine what his lifespan is and if it more than a couple of weeks he will gladly do the operation. So this was good news for us. We were so excited. We went from such a low to this uplifting news. Presently we are waiting for him to go for his surgery. Although there is nothing they can do for some of his tumors this still gives us hope, which we will always have.
It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for my family and I no doubt. However, we’ve learned so much through this struggle. We’ve learned to appreciate the little things and to cherish every moment with the ones you love. I’ve personally learned many things. I will never take for granted what some people have no control over. I will speak for those who can no longer. I will get the word out, and make a difference in the fight against melanoma. This story might not change your life as it has mine. However, if any of you reading this do encounter melanoma in your future, which I hope you do not, you will know what the word entitles. If this story can stop one person from going to the tanning salon or even make you put on a little more sunscreen I would consider my job done.
Just by protecting you skin, getting it checked and spreading the word you can be the difference between a child growing up without a parent or a wife becoming a widow. This is just one warrior’s story, for there are many others out there. It’s your life and you choose your path. I’d personally rather give a hand in the fight against melanoma and educate those who take their skin for granted. Your skin is your armor; it protects you so why can’t you protect it?