This week, we have a special guest blogger. This is Matt’s brother, John. He’s the one on the right. He’s a Naval Academy graduate, MBA, rugby All-American Honorable Mention, fitness fanatic, outdoors fanatic. My dad used to say that we were best friends starting the day he was born. I can say that there were not a whole lot of times where we were not hanging out together. We laugh at jokes that are never actually verbalized, we just know and start laughing without even a look toward each other. The story below is an important one for every single person who goes outside. It’s a tough post for me to read and I am sure it was very hard for him to write. Please read and share as it is such an important message.
**Please be aware that some of the images may be considered graphic but we are using them to make you aware of the seriousness of this post.**
Wear sunscreen. This was advice was given in an article by Mary Schmidt, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, in 1997. It was intended to be ironic because it was a mock commencement speech for college graduates and “advice is wasted on the youth.” I read the article very soon after it was published. I did not see the irony, I only saw humor.
In 1997 I was 28 years old and living in San Diego. I was involved with every sport I could fit into a day; surfing, swimming, volleyball, running…anything. This type of activity has continued throughout my life, albeit, not as frequently now. I get to the pool 3-4 times a week and still manage to ski/bike/kayak when I can. If I am outdoors, I am a happy person.
I have always worn sunscreen…well, about half the time. But, I rarely got sunburned and, when I did, it was gone the next morning. I was always aware of the sun and made sure I was acting responsibly.
I am conscious about what I eat. According to my own grading scale, I would say I eat “better than most.” Despite my daily chocolate fix, I keep red meat to a minimum, devour chicken in any form and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. I recently adopted egg whites with lots of veggies as my go-to breakfast. No sodas.
So, by all accounts, I am a healthy person.
In February of this year I noticed a mole on my back that was raised and blue-ish. I have had this mole for as long as I can remember but, previously, it was flush with the skin and a normal brown color. I showed it to my wife and we both got on the phone immediately to find a dermatologist. After several calls with potential appointments a month out, I was able to find one doctor willing to take me the next day.
The doctor agreed that the mole was suspicious and found two smaller moles a few centimeters away. He recommended that each mole be removed and sent for biopsy. But, given my skin tone and my general health, his exiting statement was “everything should be just fine.”
One week later I received a phone call while in my car. The greeting was somber followed with the question, “Are you someplace safe where we can talk? You may need to stop your car.” Nothing good ever follows an introduction like that.
The biopsy results indicated that two of the three moles were malignant and the third was pre-cancerous. Of the two malignant moles, one was diagnosed as “nodular” melanoma. Nodular is a more aggressive form which penetrates INTO your body as well as superficially. This meant immediate, aggressive intervention was needed. If the cancer gets below the skin and into my lymph nodes, it could possibly reach my internal organs.
One week later I had surgery. At 9am, in Nuclear Medicine Department, I was injected with a radio-active dye at the sight of my moles. The dye will help identify the path cancer would take if it did work its way into my lymphatic system. The radiologist marked my skin above the suspected lymph nodes. He then passed the information onto the oncologic surgeon. Thankfully the dye only drained to my axillary (arm pits) lymph nodes, both left and right. It could just as easily drained to my groin area too or my neck, each requiring specific surgical attention.
I was wheeled into the operating room and the first incision started at approximately 2pm. The entire procedure was completed after 8pm. The
surgeon took a total of 7 lymph nodes from my armpits and then a large swath of skin from my back. The depth of the back excision went down to the top layer (fascia) of my back muscle. Now the wait begins…how far did the cancer penetrate?
The following five days were an experience I would not wish on my worst enemy. It’s human nature to fill informational voids with something, anything. By the minute, these voids changed from hopeful wishes to thoughts of helplessness. What if it’s in my brain? Liver? Pancreas? It can’t be in my brain, I’m a young healthy guy with a wife and little boy. I’ll be back to normal next week. How does chemo work? I can’t pull off a bald-head…how fast do you lose your hair? How will my son be affected by this? Who will read my eulogy?
Worse yet, my family and friends aware of the situation also had similar thoughts. Watching and hearing them suffer with the unknown was worse than dealing with my own mind games. The results of the surgery could not come sooner!
The surgeon called four days after surgery. Because it was so soon, I wasn’t expecting to hear the results. I assumed he was calling to see how I was doing. My wife could hear the doctor as he said all was clear. They were able to remove the cancer before it spread. The tears began immediately and, honestly, still come occasionally.
It has been a struggle getting back to my normal, physical routine. The surgery was more invasive than I expected and took a lot of strength from me. But, the physical recovery is the easy part. Set a goal, create a plan, work the plan. I can do that.
The psychological aspect has changed my life forever. I often have thoughts of uncertainty. Did they get all the cancer? Is it working its way through my body? What if…? These thoughts are unnerving and consuming. And, as if I didn’t need a reminder, I now see a dermatologist every three months. I’m instructed to inspect my body daily for mole changes. In addition to frequent sunscreen applications (even on cloudy days) I have adopted a new wardrobe. I sport fully brimmed hats, long sleeve SPF shirts and light weight pants. I hope this new look catches on…highly doubtful.
Make sure you put sunscreen on that has “Broad spectrum coverage.” Without this, you are not getting protected from the sun’s harmful UVA rays. If you are going outside to exercise, have fun, garden, hang out…whatever, put sunscreen on. Reapply every 2 hours. If you go into the water or sweat from exercise, reapply more often. Wear sunglasses and a hat.
Mary Schmidt’s advice is not just for the youth. It applies to all. Wear sunscreen. It is no joke.