In April 2013, a mole on my right shoulder began to itch. I thought little of it, but a week later, I noted the same itch and decided to pay careful attention. When it happened again, I knew I should see a doctor.
The dermatologist said that while he thought the mole was likely nothing, he was concerned enough to remove and test it. That test came back positive for stage 1 malignant melanoma.
But further tests elevated my melanoma diagnosis to stage 3a, and I realized I needed a melanoma specialist.
So, I came to MD Anderson, where I met with Merrick Ross, M.D. We discussed the next step: another surgery. With Dr. Ross, there was more confidence and more clarity than I'd heard elsewhere, and crucially, he was more familiar with cutting-edge research that might inform my choices and my prospects. He took more time. He answered more questions. Also, he exhibited a kind of bravado that, frankly, I wanted in my doctor.
And so another surgery followed, during which 39 lymph nodes were removed. Fortunately, none of those came back positive. Along with my CT/PET scans, this confirmed a stage 3 melanoma diagnosis.
Over the summer I had several appointments with Patrick Hwu, M.D., who helped me find the right clinical trials for my melanoma treatment.
Melanoma: my second cancer diagnosis
This wasn't my first cancer diagnosis. I fought bladder cancer in April 2007, at age 33, but it was caught early and resolved by outpatient surgery. My check-ups for it, while terribly unpleasant, are now only sporadic.
But before my melanoma diagnosis, I felt confident I could expect a long life without repeating that kind of experience soon. After all, I was otherwise healthy, ate well and ran half-marathons and triathlons regularly. Surely, I was doing things right.
So, when this melanoma diagnosis came, I felt devastated, frightened and angry, and also wildly unlucky.
Over time, my perspective has balanced a little bit, and I am able to see these misfortunes in the context of an otherwise inarguably fortunate life, rich with family, friends, educational, artistic and professional opportunities, and an amazing spouse.
The response and care of my friends and family to my diagnosis and treatment continues to be humbling. My dear wife Liz has been my rock, nursing me through recovery and staying up all night, talking me down in desperate hours.
A small army of beloved friends and family came together to throw a benefit event to offset medical expenses, and, even more importantly, show their support. I will never forget this, and it has served to buoy me when I am sinking.
How my melanoma diagnosis has changed me
I suppose it is too early to know all the ways my melanoma diagnosis will affect me, but there are some ways that are immediately clear.
I am less patient with trivialities and with complaining (both from myself and others). I resist superficial social interaction and seek conversation that gets to the heart of the matter, which I imagine must make me sometimes insufferable to others. I am a little tougher than I was before, but I also more quickly express love for those with whom I am close.
Amidst all of this change and doubt, however, Liz and I are making plans for the future, defining shared projects and travel, and projecting our lives into the future as an expectation. This is partly based on new confidence, but mostly it's driven by an awareness that there is no value in planning on death. It will come when it does, and spending time and energy expecting it only robs life of vitality.
This is part of the quandary of cancer: we must learn to hold the optimistic hope for a vital future while maintaining a clear-eyed and realistic look at the risk of mortality. It seems this is also the quandary and beauty of life, merely made more salient by a deadly diagnosis.
Melanoma is one of the cancers MD Anderson isfocusing on as part of our Moon Shots Program to dramatically reduce cancerdeaths. Learn more about our Melanoma Moon Shot.