Prince George, B.C.
In 2006, I noticed a mole on my thigh. Back then, I knew nothing of skin cancer. It wasn’t even a consideration. This was just a mole that hadn’t been there before. I went several times to my doctor about it but his answer was always the same, “It’s just a mole, don’t worry about it”. I started to worry at the end of that year when the mole started to bleed while I sat and watched TV. I made an appointment with the doctor again but had to wait a couple weeks to get in. By the time I got in, the bleeding had stopped. When the Dr. looked at it, I heard the same words, “It’s just a mole”. This time however, I held my ground and told them I wanted it removed, no more talk. Two weeks after that I went back to get my stitches out. When the doctor came in I said I was there for my stitches removed and she said, “We have a problem”. It was then that I got my diagnosis that the mole was malignant melanoma.
My 2007 diagnosis led to 3 unsuccessful surgery attempts before I was sent to a larger center for a sentinel node biopsy. Fear abounded as I tried to find out about this condition. No one seemed to know anything about this malignant melanoma. All I got from Drs. and people that I asked was that this was cancer and not a good cancer to have.
After my diagnosis and surgeries, life started to settle back down. I was referred to a cancer doctor that would see me for a checkup every three months. If nothing changed, then after 2 years I would only have to see him every 6 months and if nothing reappeared within 5 years, I would be cancer free.
In May 2009, I had a recurrence as the cancer came back as a tumor in my groin. After the surgery to remove it, I got to see the doctor that was following me. As I sat across the desk from him, he opened my folder, read something, and then he closed the folder and said: “There is nothing I can do anymore, go home and get your affairs in order as there is no chance for survival now that the disease had gone metastatic”.
Needless to say, my family and I were stunned. I felt fine but the doctors were telling me that I was in the last year of my life. I searched everywhere to find out more information on this cancer. Everything I read was all about how not to get it, not what to do if you had it.
My sister sent me a news article about this lady that had started a melanoma foundation so I reached out and contacted Kathy Barnard. She had just gone through a similar whirlwind in her life and was still living and ready to tell her story. She suggested that I get a second opinion with a doctor in another province that she had seen. Then, she went and made arrangements for me to get in to see him.
My wife and I traveled the 900kms to the Cross Cancer Institute. Sitting with Dr. Smylie, he agreed that I was in trouble but then he said the magic words: “I can keep you alive”. That was all I needed to hear and at that point, I enrolled in a clinical trial. In October 2009, I entered into my first clinical study.
Unfortunately I had yet another recurrence in December 2010. They found an 8cm tumor in my lungs. A major surgery in the hospital in Alberta confirmed that the tumor was unresolvable but it did allow the clinical study team to get a biopsy of the tumor. I was closed back up and sent home. At this time I was starting to not be able to breath on my own. I was considered palliative and placed in hospice.
During my final hours, while I lay in the hospice bed breathing straight oxygen, my wife and Dr. Smylie were working feverously to come up with a plan.
Dr. Smylie announced to my family that he had found a new trial that had great promises of working on my tumor to eradicate it but he needed me back in Edmonton. My wife called everywhere and everyone she could, to try and get me across the mountains to Edmonton, but there was no medical transportation that would take me in my condition. With the help of local people in our town, I found myself being picked up out of my bed and placed in the back seat of our truck. My wife jumped in the driver’s seat and raced out into the night to take me to the cancer clinic in Alberta.
I don’t remember much of that trip. But I do vaguely remember sitting on the Drs. examination table and the Dr. saying that I was to receive the strongest version of the new drug. We finished the exam and then headed to the clinical pharmacy where we received 3 weeks of this new drug to take home with us.
Back at home, the oxygen machine had made its way there and I was laid in my own bed. Now, twice a day, I was taking a pill that would hopefully make a difference.
Two weeks later, I removed the oxygen mask and was able to breath on my own. Then it was time for my first checkup in Alberta but this time, rather than sleeping the whole way, I got to sit in the passenger seat. The Dr. was very surprised to see my new condition. They did a CT scan and were quick to show me how much the tumor had shrunk. It appeared that we were on the right track.
That was at the end of April 2011 and today I am still free of the cancer that so badly wanted to take my life. This drug was the very first version of a treatment that has come full circle and is now the approved drug for Melanoma. I was in the very first group of patients to ever receive this drug. There were a lot of really bad side effects from the drug but I stuck with it with the reason being that back then, the only real piece of info we had was that if treatment stopped, the melanoma would come back as it did for so many others in this trial. Without any other options, and not wanting to have to look at death again, I stayed with it until 2 and a half years later when a new trial was presented that I could go on should the melanoma come back.
Today, I’m still cancer free.