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.
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.