Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What I learned in 2013

Usually I try to make resolutions for the coming year.  I always falter.  Case in point, last year I documented that I had hoped to lose 15 pounds in 2012 and yet I gained 8.  I repeated the same resolution for 2013, and yet I’ve gained 5 more pounds.  Clearly, I’ve learned that I’m not the best at keeping my resolutions.  But I have learned other things in 2013.

·        Elected officials are not the most intelligent people in the world…or the nation…or the state.  You would think that we’d elect the brightest of our peers (no matter the political party) to represent us when it comes to establishing the laws of the land.  But when I listened into the teen tanning debate over the North Carolina Legislative podcast, I felt like I was listening to a high school pep club arguing over which brand of tissue should cover the homecoming float.  Many of the arguments were based on hearsay and not on any real factual evidence.  Those who had no medical knowledge declared the health benefits of tanning beds.  And even some who supported the ban seemed to be a little loose on their facts.  I learned that public policy is based solely on gut feel and peer pressure and very little on fact and the common good.

·        Politics can be…well, political.  After the teen tanning ban bill died in committee, I was convinced we had lost a major battle.  In fact, I learned that the bill’s status in limbo was expected by those who introduced the legislation.  Apparently, this first run was to expose the strengths and weaknesses in the tanning ban legislation and to determine who would be the strongest allies and staunchest adversaries.  Having had the expected results of the first run, I’m sure the next run at banning teen tanning in North Carolina will be met with better success.

·        I can have a voice, even if I fall flat on my face the first time.  I was given the opportunity to tell Jeff’s story at the Miles for Melanoma Raleigh walk in October (also known as the Amanda Wall – Corey Hadden Memorial Walk).  I hate public speaking.  I mean, I really hate it.  But I really wanted to tell Jeff’s story despite my fears.  A couple of weeks prior, I had the opportunity to speak at a West Virginia University Alumni gathering to announce the upcoming walk.  I attempted to give a much abbreviated version of my speech and I froze.  I mumbled a few words and somehow squeaked out the time and date of the walk, but that was it.  So when the day of the real speech arrived, I was a nervous wreck.  I had practiced in my head many times over, but I was still nervous.  And yet when the time came, I felt as if I were in a trance…in “the zone.”  I nailed the speech and said exactly what I wanted to say with the passion in which it intended to be conveyed.  Fall seven times, stand up eight.

·        People can be very giving.  I already knew this of the melanoma community, but I have been reminded over and over throughout the year.  When it comes to donating to melanoma awareness and fund-raising, those within the community are more than willing to give.  The aforementioned Miles for Melanoma Raleigh Walk raised a record amount.  At the same time, when someone in need of support asks for such on my Facebook page, others in the melanoma community flock to assist.  It’s an amazing thing to witness and one of the main joys of keeping the BITNP Facebook page going.  It’s helping other people.

·        Melanoma awareness is increasing.  There has been more press about the dangers of tanning and the importance of getting your skin checked.  Articles and videos have popped up on television station websites.    Great PSAs are also appearing from larger organizations…with the latest from the American Cancer Society making a statement that “tanning is really bad.”  People ARE becoming aware.

I’ve learned these things and much more.  I’m excited about 2014.  While I won’t make any resolutions, I do have one hope.  While I hope that melanoma awareness continues to rise, my real hope is that real KNOWLEDGE about melanoma and skin cancer will spread.  It’s not enough to just be aware, it’s about being knowledgeable.

Happy New Year everyone!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Secrets


Image: washingtonpost.com
The holiday season is a time for many things.  Family.  Friends.  Worship.  And secrets.  Everyone in my family has at least one secret during the holidays, mostly involving gifts.  My kids are both now in Middle School and they have become quite talented at keeping secrets.  Each of them picked out presents for other family members by themselves this year.  Each also have neither confirmed nor denied the existence of a certain North Pole resident.  I imagine they suspect that Santa is not a real person, but they’re keeping that opinion to themselves.  My guess is that if they announce a disbelief in Saint Nick, they believe the presents will cease to appear on Christmas morning.  At least that was my thought at the same age.  Regardless, they are both keeping this a secret from me.

Another secret was revealed to me over these last two weeks.  My ever-developing and maturing 11-year old daughter who has always adored me as a hero now has a boyfriend.  It’s just a class-mate crush, but I’m aware that such “relationships” are more complicated in this day of texting and emailing.  I don’t have a fear of my daughter having a boyfriend…just of the modern day etiquette and practices of which I’m not aware.  She finally asked my wife to share the news with me, so I approached my daughter with a smiling and understanding expression and told her I wouldn’t tease her (much) and that it was okay to have a boyfriend.  I also told her a father’s job is not to tease the daughter, but to intimidate the boyfriend, so I’d look forward to that day soon.

It was my son who surprised me the most.  He knew of his sister’s boyfriend (who happens to be one of my son’s best friends…another dynamic that should prove to be challenging down the road).  What surprised me is that he could keep a secret at all.  He’s the one that often blurts out the most untimely comments in public (think “Fire! in a crowded movie house”).  He’s always the one that crumbles under the “Daddy stare” into a fit of giggles and cries of “Okay okay…I’ll tell you!”  But within Boyfriend-Gate, he showed no signs of having knowledge at all.  I would be proud of him if it wasn’t for the worry this has set upon me.  These are the first secrets of many to come.  Many, many!

Don’t get me wrong, I have fantastic kids.  Sure, I have parental bias, but I think I speak fact as well.  They both do well in school and each has a good set of friends that also perform well in class as well as in social groups.  My kids could be more active, but their lack of involvement is as much my fault as anyone’s.  Overall, they are really good kids.  Good kids that have learned to keep secrets really well.

I predict (hope) that they will make good decisions in the future.  They know that smoking is bad (it killed their grandma) and that tanning is bad (it contributed to their uncle’s death).  But I know they’ll do things and try things of which they’ll keep secrets.  I know this because I did.  I have secrets that I would never tell my parents and that I’ll probably take to my grave.  I did things that I knew “was wrong” and yet I did them anyway.  I’ve made better and smarter decisions later in life and would most likely not repeat some of those earlier actions.  Those actions…which started when I was just slightly older than what my kids are now.  So yeah, I have to be realistic and know that my kids will make some poor decisions.  Despite being incredibly well behaved kids now, they’ll make the occasional bone-headed decision.  And they’ll keep some so secret that they’ll take them to their grave.

I have some solace in knowing that some decisions are made more difficult to carry through. I know that my son won’t be hopping in my car to zoom down the road, at least until he’s 15 or 16, because middle schoolers are too young to drive.  I know that my daughter won’t go off to buy cigarettes from the store until she’s around 18 (hopefully never) because that’s the age limit in North Carolina.  I know that neither will go off to buy a pint of Crown Royal until they’re 21, the legal drinking age in this state.  There are other such age restrictions which help to put my mind at ease.  I’m not so na├»ve to realize that loopholes can’t be found or that a friend or young adult might not sneak a drink or a smoke their way.  Still, I do know that such laws make access more difficult.

That’s why I support any efforts toward a ban on tanning beds for minors.  I know that my kids are good kids.  I know that I have parental control over these kids…now.  I also know that good kids (yes, I was a “good kid”) will purposely make a bad choice and then keep it a secret.  I’m convinced they will stay away from tanning beds.  But then again….

Kudos to our friend Chelsea Dawson for fighting for a tanning bed ban in Virginia.  Cheers to all others that have won the fights in their states or plan to continue the fight in others.  I wholeheartedly agree that parents should have the responsibility for their children and understand that every parent believes they have good kids.  Almost as good as mine.  But I also know that kids will make mistakes that can affect their lives in dramatic ways.  We might think our kids will make the right choices…but we might never know their secrets.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Basal Cell Carcinoma


By now, you’ve most likely seen this photo of Hugh Jackman.
 


The Wolverine himself announced to the world that he had skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma, removed from his nose.  The bandage wasn't because he had plastic surgery or was in a fight.  He had skin cancer.  This photo made it to all the entertainment news shows while the phrase “skin cancer” was simultaneously spoken.  That’s a good step to increasing awareness.  But what exactly is basal cell carcinoma and how serious is it?

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) are abnormal growths from the basal cells of the skin, which are located in the deepest layer of the outer skin.   The very rarely spread to other areas of the body, but they can grow in size and become disfiguring if not addressed.

BCC usually occurs on skin that is exposed to the sun the most, such as on the nose, ears, face, scalp, neck, shoulders or back.  It can develop by other means (radiation exposure, contact with arsenic, tattooing, complications from burns, etc.) but UV radiation is the primary cause.

While anyone can get it, those with fair skin, red or blonde hair, and blue or green eyes are more likely to be diagnosed with BCC.  Treatments can range from topical medications, cryosurgery (“freezing it off”), radiation, or Mohs surgery.  Basal Cell Carcinoma is rarely fatal, but again, can become rather disfiguring and scarring, particularly if left untreated.

Skin cancer in general is diagnosed annually more than cancers of the breast, colon, lung and prostate combined!  BCC is the most common form of skin cancer with about 2.8 million occurrences diagnosed every year.

Basal Cell Carcinoma is very treatable and, unfortunately has led to the “simply cut out skin cancer” mentality.  But even if the treatment is that simple, multiple scars and potentially disfiguring surgery is never a preferred choice for anyone, particularly A-list Hollywood stars.  BCC can be quite serious, even if it is “just skin cancer.”
 
I invite you to visit the Skin Cancer Foundations website at www.skincancer.org for more information.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Thoughts on One Sibling's Passing


A few years after my mother passed away, I decided it was not healthy to “recognize” the anniversary of her passing.  You can’t really call it a celebration, but “honoring” and grieving over my mom’s death on the same day in January held me back.  Deciding to celebrate her birthday instead was a very healing decision.  I still note the day she died on my calendar, but over time, it’s simply become a date.  I’ve tried to do the same thing with my brother’s death.

My brother died on November 15…and his funeral was on November 18…exactly three years ago today.  It’s been hard to pass up his “death anniversary” this year because of another death that occurred around this time of year.  John F. Kennedy.  Obviously, the day JFK was shot changed this country, and that’s why we see so much coverage, especially on this 50th anniversary of his death.  Having all the media and the entire country recall the death of one person can’t help but spill over and cause me to think a bit more about my brother’s death than I’d like.  Well, not about his death, but about the void left behind.

My mother’s death devastated me.  I’ve not admitted it before, but I had to take anti-depressants after her death to try to cope.  It turned out the treatment was far more damaging and I had to end up dealing with things on my own, resulting in the realization I mentioned before…to focus on her life and not her death.  Jeff’s death has affected me in a far different manner.  His illness leading to his death was far more painful.  His death was more of a message to me.

I guess we all expect parents to die before us, but most of us never want our mommy or daddy to go away.  (Yes, I have referred to her as “mommy” more so after she died).  It hurts when they’re gone, but it’s the natural progression of things.  But when a sibling dies, a piece of our own soul dies as well.

Jeff’s illness scared me on so many levels.  Having a sibling die forces one to face one’s own mortality.  We’re from the same generation, which means death can come knocking on my door at any time.  I’ll say it again…it scared me.

My brother and I weren’t incredibly close.  We weren’t the types to call daily or to keep in touch with every aspect of our lives.  We were seven years apart in age and that’s an eternity when you’re growing up…and it takes a lot of adulthood to start closing that gap.  We were JUST at that closure when he left.  That hurt.  It’s not his fault…but I felt that a life-long bond that had just formed was brutally ripped apart.  I’ll say it again…it hurt.

And then there was the realization that despite not being stereotypically close, we were indeed close.  So many times after he passed, I thought of calling him to ask about a family member, or to call him to discuss the latest WVU game.  When I would geocache and come across a little adventure I’d want to share, I would start to email him.  But he was gone.  I never knew how much of me was shared with my brother.  And now that was gone.

Every person has a unique relationship with his or her sibling.  My relationship with Jeff is far different that yours with your sibling.  My reaction to his death is different than yours will be…or was.

I’ve mentioned here before that Jeff’s death became an inspiration and that I started this blog and campaign in his honor.  That’s true.  But I also started it out of fear.  I had to know if I was at risk of a similar melanoma diagnosis.  I started it from the hurt because a bond between us was torn, and I hoped the campaign would somehow mend that.  I started it to keep my brother here, at least his memory.  While I receive compliments and assurance from others that I’m carrying out that mission successfully…and that he would be proud, I have so wished that I could hear that from Jeff.

I’m not an overly religious man.  I’m perhaps more spiritual than anything.  I also try not to be sappy.  But on Saturday, November 15 at about three years to the minute of his death, I was walking along the beach with my daughter.  It was a cloudy, gray day.  I looked out over the ocean and I saw a sight that gave me that assurance that Jeff was indeed aware…and was still here in spirit.  I saw a rainbow within the clouds.  (The photo I took doesn’t do it justice…the colors I saw were so vivid and bright)  Yeah, I know it’s a natural phenomenon related to ice crystals and light refraction…I’ve seen it many times before.  But for some reason, this sighting reassured me.  This sight said…everything.  This was Jeff.

I’ve felt scared, hurt and empty.  Now I feel assured and recharged.  November 15 will always be a date to mark the day my brother died.  But it’ll also be merely another day on the calendar…another day t o live.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Amanda's Story...Michael's Mission


It’s a story repeated all too often in “Melanoma Nation.”  A beautiful young woman finds that an innocent looking mole is actually melanoma.  She discovers that the melanoma is far more serious than “just skin cancer” and enters a fight for her life.  A few such women have been fortunate enough to fight their way to N-E-D status (no evidence of disease) while far too many passed away.  Such is Amanda’s story.

Amanda Faye Brown had a pencil eraser sized mole on her shoulder.  Her husband Michael thought of it as a beauty mark.  But eventually, Amanda saw a dermatologist and it was determined to be Stage I melanoma.  It was surgically removed with the assurance that it was all gone.

It wasn’t.

In November of 2004, a small nodule was spotted on the inside of her thigh as well as a couple on her abdomen.  The melanoma had been spreading within her body for the previous two years. She was diagnosed as Stage IV.  A dozen or so tumors were discovered on her lungs and she was given a few months to live.  She fought on for longer, but died on April 15, 2006 at the age of 31.

Amanda kept a journal of her fight so as to enlighten others of the horror of this extremely dangerous cancer.  Michael had vowed to educate others so as to prevent this same tragedy in other families.  He began speaking at local middle schools and high schools and sharing Amanda’s story.  A few months ago, he published a book called Finding N-E-D, No Evidence of Disease.  The book is a compilation of Amanda’s journal entries intermixed with Michael’s own thoughts and memories.
 
 

Tomorrow, on November 12, 2013, Michael embarks on a multi-city tour to speak with over 2,500 students nationwide. He calls the tour “Amanda’s Message Tour.”  He begins in Erie, PA at MacDowell High School.  Today (November 11, 2013), he visited the regional cancer center in Erie where he entertained and shared some fun moments.

You see, Michael is the saxophonist for the legendary rock group Sha Na Na.  He told me of today’s visit to the cancer center, “I played my sax and sang a few Sha Na Na songs.  We played ‘Name That Tune!’  It was a fun moment with awesome patients!”

Michael is doing a great thing…sharing Amanda’s story, helping to cheer up those who are fighting for their lives, and educating kids on sun safety and skin cancer.  But Michael needs some help.  He has a lot of heart to tackle this tour, but unfortunately he has limited funding.  He could use our help.

I know this is a big time of year for charities and holiday gifts, so it’s not always easy to give.  I know the Charlotte AIM for the Cure Walk is upon us on November 16, and so many of you are spending cash to participate or donate.  Still, I ask that you spread the word and continue making a contribution to Michael’s mission.  He had set a goal of $6000 to help pay for the expenses of the tour (he’s driving his own car and looking for modest priced motel rooms along the way).  So far he’s raised $530…not even 10% of his goal, and his tour starts tomorrow!

If you can help, thank you.  If you can’t with a donation, then please spread the word of Michael Brown’s mission and encourage others to make a contribution.  And if you live in any of the following cities, spread the word to local media and consider attending yourself.  Here are the tour dates:

Nov 12                  Erie, PA
Nov 13                  Mansfield, OH
Nov 14                  Cincinnati, OH
Nov 15                  Owensboro, KY
Nov 18                  St. Louis, MO
Nov 19                  Springfield, MO
Nov 20                  Mustang, OK
Nov 21                  Amarillo, TX
Nov 22                  Albuquerque, NM
Nov 25                  Winslow, AZ
Nov 26                  Kingman, AZ
Nov 27                  Las Vegas, NV

For more information on Amanda’s story and Michael’s mission, please check out some of these links:





Friday, November 1, 2013

Comparing Survival Rates of Breast Cancer and Melanoma


I posted a recent commentary article written by someone else on my Facebook page that had a remarkable statement. “The survival rates for stage II melanoma are the same or worse than for stage III breast cancer.”  That got my attention, so I decided to dig in a little more.

A survival rate tells you what percentage of people will survive a certain type of cancer after a specified number of years.  In most cases, the survival rate is measured for 5 years.  For instance, a survival rate of 80% means that 80% of the people with that cancer survived, or were alive, after 5 years.  Conversely, 20% of the people died.  This is calculated based on the study of hundreds or thousands of people who have been diagnosed with the various cancers.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, “surviving” may not mean you’re cancer free or not undergoing treatment.

As I see it, the survival rate of a cancer dictates just how deadly that cancer can be.  However, a cancer with a low survival rate might not be the more widespread killer.  As stated in the original quote, melanoma has a lower survival rate than breast cancer, but statistics also show that there are about 5 times more cases of breast cancer per year than melanoma cases.  Breast cancer is a grenade which affects many while melanoma is a stone cold assassin which targets a few with greater efficiency.

How do the different cancers compare?  I checked into the American Cancer Society’s website and found the survival rates for each stage for both breast cancer (obtained from the 2013 National Cancer Institute’s SEER database) and melanoma (obtained from the 2008 AJCC Melanoma Staging Database):

Breast Cancer
Melanoma
Stage
Survivor Rate
Stage
Survivor Rate
0
100%
Not reported
I
100%
IA
97%
 
 
IB
92%
II
93%
IIA
81%
 
 
IIB
70%
 
 
IIC
53%
III
72%
IIIA
78%
 
 
IIIB
59%
 
 
IIIC
40%
IV
22%
IV
15% to 20%

 
As you can see, there are indeed levels of Stage II melanoma which have a lower survival rate than Stage III Breast Cancer!

So what does this say?  It implies that breast cancer research has been very successful in recent years, thus increasing the overall survival rates.  In fact, according to the American Cancer Society’s “2013 Cancer Facts & Figures” report, breast cancer has an overall (all stages together) average survival rate of 89%.  Melanoma’s overall survival rate is 91%.

Hmm... that is interesting.  Is research responsible for melanoma’s higher overall survival rate?  Most likely not.  These figures were taken in 2008…before incredible medical advances such as Yervoy and Ipi.  Melanoma has always had a high OVERALL survival rate because so many more people catch melanoma in the earliest stages as opposed to many other cancers.  Why?  Because we can see it on the skin!  While this seems like great information, it hasn’t been the best news for melanoma researchers.  After all, if a cancer has such a high survival rate, why pour money into researching a cure when other cancers need more desperate help?  I’m sure this has been the challenging argument for melanoma researchers for years.

It’s important for those donating money to understand the nature of advance stage cancers.  Stage II breast cancer has a 93% survival rate.  Stage IIC melanoma has a 53% survival rate!  That’s an alarming difference!  This gap can only be filled with additional research.

To me, this set of data tells demonstrates two things.  First, as I said before, advanced melanoma is a stone cold killer.  But secondly, and more importantly, melanoma can be defeated if detected early.  There have been great things happening to further successful melanoma treatments, but so much more needs to be done.  The greatest weapon against this assassin is you!  Get your skin checked annually by a dermatologist and check your own skin monthly.

 
Post script:

As I reviewed the data found in the American Cancer Society report, “Cancer Facts & Figures 2013,” I noticed the survival rates of other cancers.  In particular cancers of the lung and pancreas have remarkably low overall survival rates.  Compared to melanoma at 91%, lung cancer comes in at only 16% and pancreatic cancer at 6%.  Stage IV rates for each respectively are 4% and 2%.  More people will die of lung cancer this year than any other cancer.  Cancer of the pancreas is statistically the deadliest of all cancers.

November is the awareness month for both Lung Cancer and Pancreatic Cancer.  The pink ribbons and football cleats have been put away now that October is over.  No one will likely be wearing white (lung) or purple (pancreas) in November…at least not for awareness.

Please continue your support for melanoma awareness and research, but take some time this month to lend your heart and hand to pancreatic cancer and lung cancer…the latter which took my mom’s life in 2005.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Giving...for the Magic

Last week (in October, 2013 for any historians that find this blog post in the future), I attended the MRF Miles for Melanoma Raleigh Walk (the 3rd Annual Amanda Wall – Corey Haddon Memorial Walk).  The event had a near miraculous feel about it.  Nearly 225 walkers participated and over $45,000 dollars was raised!  That is so many more people and so much more money than any of us expected.  While the majority of walkers were local, several traveled many miles from Northern Virginia and Charlotte.  Compared to last year’s Amanda-Corey Walk, this had a much more “Big Event” feel.

Last year in November, 2012, I participated in the Charlotte AIM for a Cure Walk.  That event raised a lot of money as well plus also had many walkers.  Right after the walk, I wrote a blog post reflecting on the event.  My closing paragraph read as such:

 This AIM walk is one of many…and AIM is one of several organizations that host such events.  EVERY walk is special.  Each event raises funds and awareness. Don’t let all the blogs and Facebook posts make you think that this was the ONLY event in which to participate.  Hardly.  It’s one of many, and I encourage everyone to find such an event near you.  AIM.  MRF.  Miles Against Melanoma.  Outrun the Sun.  Each one helps our campaign to raise awareness.

I have the same thought today.

I guess what I’m trying to say is…walk.  Attend an event.  Go to a golf tourney that raises funds for melanoma awareness or research.  Attend a free MRF or AIM seminar and give yourself the gift of knowledge.  Teach a middle school class about sun safety.  If you participate in an event with others, even stranger and particularly with survivors and warriors, you won’t regret one second.

In this day and age, it’s hard to give.  Money is tight (boy don’t I know that recently) and time is tighter in our busy schedules.  But I encourage you to make a moment available to give something.  Save 25 cents a week to donate some day in the future.  Pencil in one weekend out of the year to give time for a walk.  Spend 5 minutes of your Facebook time each night sharing articles on awareness.  Send a “thinking of you” text to a survivor/warrior.

Give.  Not “til it hurts,” but until you can’t stop smiling.

 
Postscript:

I have many friends walking in the 2014 Charlotte AIM for a Cure Walk next month.  I won’t be able to attend this year (which is why I pour so much of myself into the MRF Walk), but I ask that you support one of the AIM walkers.  It doesn’t matter which…the money will go to the same place.  Click here for the donation page.

There is also another event in North Texas affiliated with the Miles Against Melanoma organization.  Click here for their donation page.

I invite you to check out my “Melanoma Awareness and Fund-RaisingEvents” link for many such events.  I’ll be adding 2014 events soon, but there are still plenty of 2013 events scheduled.  Look for one near you!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Speech


I was nervous.  I don’t like being out of my comfort zone and public speaking qualifies as being WAY out of my comfort zone.  But I had a message I wanted to share, so I spoke.  I shared Jeff’s story and message to a crowd of around 200 walkers who were anxious to start walking.  I wondered if I would be heard…if the message would be heard.  I wondered if I would pass out.

But Timna spoke before me and did a fabulous job.  And I knew she was nervous…beyond nervous.  But she shined and thus gave me confidence to speak.  (Thank you Timna!)  

I wish I had my speech on tape.  There was a camera crew on site to film a video about the entire Amanda Wall – Corey Haddon Memorial Walk experience, so perhaps one day I’ll have it to share.  Such a tape would catch the adlibs while the train whistle blared behind me…and when I challenged anyone to debate on the (lack of) health benefits of tanning.  Oh, and I was wearing a tutu the entire speech.  But until I have such a video, I’ll share what I wrote for the speech instead.

One more thing the copy below doesn’t share is the joy I felt when someone approached me afterward, promising to make an appointment for the dermatologist on Monday morning.  That, my friends, is exactly why it was worth stepping far from my comfort zone.

The Speech:

A little over a year ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Don, Rebecca, Chap and Diane.  I never met Amanda or Corey, but through their family and friends, I discovered that both were amazing girls that were taken from us far too early by melanoma.  Like many of you, I walk here today in their honor.  But I also walk in honor of my brother Jeff.

In 2004, Jeff had a large ugly mole on his back.  His wife convinced him to see a dermatologist.  He diagnosed it as early stage melanoma and had it surgically removed with clear margins.  That means the melanoma was completely removed.  But that was to be expected…after all, it was just skin cancer, right?  I mean, you just cut it out and go on with your life…no big deal.  At least that’s what everyone thought…me included.

But Jeff knew it was a big deal…he knew the seriousness of melanoma.  He knew that he dodged a bullet.  He knew he had a new lease on life, and he started to live more healthily.  He lost weight, got his diabetes in check, exercised more, and stopped smoking.  He encouraged others to be sun safe and convinced many to see their dermatologist…including me.  He became involved with the Special Olympics and Relay for Life.  But at the Relay for Life, he’d never visit the survivor’s table to get a special ribbon or t-shirt.  Jeff felt that he wasn’t worthy of being called a survivor because he hadn’t undergone the radiation or chemotherapy that so many others had. But he was wrong.  He was a survivor because he suffered the mental anguish of knowing he had cancer.

In 2010, Jeff visited his general practitioner for a physical.  The doctor said Jeff was in the best health that he’d seen in years, and he asked Jeff if he had any questions or concerns.  Jeff responded that he felt great, but that he had some dizziness, that letters would seem to move as he was reading, and that he was having memory lapses.  The doctor joked that it was probably due to getting older, but decided to order an MRI to make sure things were okay.

What they found were three one-inch tumors in Jeff’s brain and numerous tumors in his lungs.  The melanoma was back.  You see, for anyone that has had melanoma, there is a one in three chance that it will reoccur.  This is exactly what happened with Jeff.

So in August of 2010 after an otherwise healthy check-up Jeff was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma.  In November, three months later, Jeff died.

I visited with Jeff in September, only one month after his diagnosis.  His health has deteriorated quickly.  He was bloated from the steroids, his hair was gone, and he was using a walker because he was rapidly losing his motor skills.  When he talked with you, he would stare through you…partially because he was slowly going blind and partially because he had trouble recognizing people.  I had to remind him who I was several times.  But we still had some good conversations about our childhood and other misadventures. 

He told me a story about how he went to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center for cancer treatments.  He visited the gift shop to look for anything related to melanoma.  Because the color for melanoma is black, he sought out black ribbons…black wristbands…black car magnets.  But all he could find was pink.

Jeff and I both have family members and friends that have battled breast cancer, so we had nothing but respect for the pink breast cancer awareness campaign.  But Jeff told me that he was SO disappointed that there was nothing black at all.  Jeff said to me, “Alan, I wish that just once, black would be the new pink.”  I have a blog for melanoma awareness and that’s what I named it to honor my brother…Black is the New Pink. 

But I’m not here to promote my blog, I’m here to share Jeff’s message which was the next thing he told me in our conversation.  Jeff said, “People need to know.”  That’s all he said, but I knew what he meant.

 People need to know about melanoma.  People need to know that one person dies from melanoma every hour in the U.S.  People need to know that 1 person out of 5 is diagnosed with potentially disfiguring skin cancer, and 1 out of every 50 will be diagnosed with melanoma in their lifetime.  People need to know that melanoma is the number two cancer killer for people ages 15 to 25…so it’s not just an old person’s disease.  People need to know that Bob Marley died from melanoma on his toe…so it’s not just a fair-skinned person’s cancer and it can occur anywhere on the body.

But people need to know that you CAN go out and enjoy the sun.  Jeff loved the outdoors.  He hiked, geocached, golfed and worked in his garden.  He wanted people to know how to be safe in the sun.  People need to wear sunscreen…every day…even on cloudy days.  People need to wear hats.  People need to wear sunglasses, because melanoma can occur in the eye!  People need to stay away from tanning beds because there is not one healthy benefit to using a tanning bed…period!  But most importantly, people need to know to see their dermatologist.

Your skin is your largest organ!  Your skin is you most exposed organ!  Your skin is your most damaged organ!  You visit your dentist once or twice a year... you visit your family doctor once a year, so it only makes sense to visit your dermatologist once a year.  If you haven’t seen your dermatologist in a while, I encourage you to call and make an appointment Monday morning!

People need to be aware of melanoma.  But people also need to take action against melanoma.  You are taking action today by participating in this walk.  Please continue to take action after today by sharing the stories you hear today.  Take action by wearing sunscreen, avoiding the tanning bed,  and visiting the dermatologist, and encouraging others to do the same.  If you have to wear a black tutu to get their attention, please do it!  Do so in honor of Amanda, Corey, Jeff, and the many thousands who are touched by melanoma every day.

Thank you.