Thursday, August 20, 2015

Jimmy Carter's Cancer and a Guilty Thought

I had a thought this morning for which I’ve felt a bit guilty all day. 

As I was getting ready for work, I saw the story on television where former President Jimmy Carter was going to share more details about his cancer later in the day.  I couldn’t recall such an event before regarding cancer.  Usually, one announced their cancer diagnosis right away…there was no waiting for an announcement of the specific details later.  “Steven Jobs announces that he has pancreatic cancer.”  “Shannon Doherty reveals breast cancer diagnosis.” “Jimmy Carter has….cancer to be revealed next week.”

I wondered what type of cancer he might have, and it occurred to me that whichever cancer he has will get a real boost in awareness and publicity.  I stopped short of it, but I came damned close to wishing that President Carter would announce that he has melanoma.

All of you should know that I would never ever wish cancer, especially melanoma on any person…not even my worst enemy.  Still, there’s always been this near desperation to have a celebrity representative for “our” cancer.  Bob Marley has been our go-to guy…the perfect example of how melanoma can attack the young and those with darker skin.  However, we still lacked a mainstream face, and don’t think that we didn’t search for one.  Remember how we all shared that Hugh Jackman had skin cancer?  Sure, it was basal cell carcinoma (BCC), but it was skin cancer and a celebrity was talking about it.  We were so “happy.”  And yet, none of us are really ever happy for anyone diagnosed with cancer, even BCC.

As it turns out, Jimmy Carter did indeed announce that he has melanoma that has metastasized to his brain and liver.  I feel awful for him and his family.  While there have been many who have survived a Stage IV melanoma diagnosis, the survival rate is still only 15%.  Many have beaten the odds.  More have not.  This includes my brother Jeff.

It was 5 years ago…almost to the day….that my brother announced that he had Stage IV melanoma that had metastasized to his brain and lungs.  I recall talking to him and he stated how he actually felt quite healthy.  He had plans to go to work for a few months and take some time off whenever the treatments made him feel sick.  He simply couldn’t believe he had cancer, especially cancer in his brain.  Less than a month later, I visited him and he could no longer go to work.  He needed a cane to walk.  His memory and brain functions were diminishing.  He, frankly, looked like he had cancer.  Two months after that, he was gone.

While the prognosis remains dim, President Carter has a much better shot at survival than did my brother.   He is being treated with an immunotherapy drug called Keytruda.   This and several other drugs simply didn’t exist five years ago.  Amazing research has occurred.  However, what remains relatively low on the radar is awareness about melanoma.

The public continues to see melanoma as just another skin cancer.  Just like Hugh Jackman’s BCC, many people think that melanoma can be cut out and all that remains is a large bandage on the nose.  This is simply not the case with melanoma.  As with Mr. Carter, melanoma can form inconspicuously on the skin and spread to other parts of the body if it remains undetected.  It can spread to the liver, the lungs, the brain…anywhere!  It can start anywhere on the skin, including places that never see the sun.  (Yes, even “those” places).  It can start in your eyes or in your mouth.  It is simply one of the nastiest and sneakiest cancers there is.  But make no mistake, no matter where it might occur, it’s still melanoma.

One of my good friends and fellow melanoma awareness advocates (Respect the Rays) posted the following on Facebook today:

I really hope the media starts calling Jimmy Carter’s cancer diagnosis what is it…melanoma.  It’s not liver cancer…or brain cancer.  It’s melanoma that has spread (metastasized) to his liver and brain.”

It’s a common misconception that melanoma in the brain is brain cancer, or that melanoma in the lungs is lung cancer.  It’s not.  It’s melanoma.  Even my brother had a tough time grasping that.  

When I last saw Jeff, we were playing cards.  When he lost the game, he joking said to me, “yeah…big deal that you beat a guy with brain cancer!”  He always looked at the lighter side of life.  Another time, we were discussing various cancer awareness colors.  “Black is for melanoma, white is for lung cancer, and gray is for brain cancer!  Could I have three more boring colors?”  Again, I loved Jeff's humor, but the fact is, he had only one cancer, and that was melanoma. 

The same is true of President Carter.  He has melanoma.  As a result, the world might learn a little about the disease.  And despite my early morning thought, I really wish he didn’t have it. 

I wish there was no melanoma at all.