Melanoma: An Unexpected Journey

Do you ever feel overwhelmed? Do you wonder what tomorrow may bring? I am feeling both. It has taken me a while to put the words to paper, but I feel that if this makes a difference in one person’s life, then sharing Richard’s story will have made a difference.

February 15th, 2021, became a day that changed our world. One of my worst nightmares came back to haunt us and we do not know where this journey is taking us.

Lets back up a bit. 34 years ago, newly married and living in South Africa. Our dreams are ahead of us, our future is ours to make.

18 months into our marriage, Richard scratched a mole on his back. For whatever reason it was not healing. I suggested he see a dermatologist. Like me, he tends to not want to see doctors. We have an ostrich philosophy. Bury our heads in the sand and it will go away. The dermatologist removed the mole and Richard headed home. All was good, until it wasn’t.

The call came for him to go back and see the dermatologist. The outer areas of the cut showed signs of melanoma cells. The area they had cut was too small.

So he headed back, they did a bigger cut, and then they did a skin graft. The doctor showed me how to clean it. I thought I would loose my stomach. I almost did. I remember thinking “I am not a nurse, I don’t know how to do this”

The pathology on the mole came back melanoma.

34 years ago is a long time. I don’t remember all my emotions, but I remember the fear. I remember the disbelief. I remember thinking we have just started out life together. I remember praying for his life.

I was 24 years old, we had our lives planned, where did we go from here?

Richard had treatment for the mole, radiation. All seemed good. Life carried on, until it stopped.

One year later he felt a lump under his arm. A trip to the doctor indicated that the melanoma had spread. All of his lymph nodes were removed. He went back for radiation and therapy. Everything under his arm was killed including the hair growth.

For 5 years we lived with the melanoma in the background. With the fear that it may come back. Each year Richard went back for checkup, and each year he got a clear report. After 5 years we were told that he did not need to come back anymore. For all intents and purposes he was cancer free. We could move on.

Richard and I both grew up in a coastal town. He surfed, did body boarding, loved to be in the waves. He was a runner, ran a marathon, canoed the Duzi (a well known South African river canoeing competition). He cycled, windsurfed, sailed a dingy, played soccer.

We camped through Europe, scuba dived South Africa and Mozambique, camped in game parks, slept in a cave, hiked in the mountains, and spent many a day on the beach. Our life was outdoors.

We watched our children grow. In 2001 we emigrated to the USA. Home away from home. The climate was the same hot humid weather. We had the beach. We had brought all of our camping equipment with us. We planned to play as much as we worked, and we had the perfect climate to do that. To be transparent, we were in the sun a good deal of our lives. Jamaica was a fine example of being exposed to the sun, and to be honest loving it.

In October 2020, the year of Covid, our European plans were killed and so we headed with the family to the mountains. We had a cottage in the middle of nowhere on the top of a mountain. We hiked, we climbed, we explored, we even took in a wine farm. Richard was healthy and energetic, and it was a great de-stressor after the year we had had. He wanted to do more hikes, I wanted to slow down. It was a good time for the family to be away together.

November 2020 brought a change in his life, while mine carried on as normal. He complained he had a bloated feeling in his stomach. Then he was feeling pains in his stomach. He saw a GI guy and did the standard colonoscopy and endoscopy. Still nothing. Christmas was a nightmare of good and bad days. For me to see Richard lying on a recliner chair with a blanket over him for days on end was not the norm. He is the energizer bunny, on the go all the time. By now he had lost about 25 pounds and was suffering from dizziness due to low iron levels. I had begun feeding him liver to try and boost his iron.

In February 2021, Richard was set to have a CT scan to try and establish what was going on. Our insurance declined to pay for the CT scan. I was frustrated and fearful, because his pain was real. Richard is not one to fake pain. At that point I told him to go to the ER. He did. I dropped him off at the ER but was basically told I can wait in my car or I can come back when he was done. I felt alone, frustrated and I felt like I was abandoning him, while not knowing what was going on. Little did I know what tomorrow would bring.

In the ER he explained the pain he was having. They took him for a CT scan of his stomach. They took him back for a second scan of his lung. The started asking him for his medical history. I am communicating with him by text. Next thing he says, “they want to do a MRI of my brain”. My first thought is what does your brain have to do with stomach pain.

Then he text me, “I am staying in, they are doing surgery tomorrow, they are talking melanoma, there are 3 blockages in my small intestine and they spotted something on my lung”.

My heart dropped. Our world changed. 34 years later Richard has been diagnosed with multiple melanoma in his small intestine and one in his lung. Thankfully they could not pick up anything in the other organs or in the brain. If you do not know, it appears melanoma from a mole, can spill over and go dormant for years. In Richard’s case, 34 years.

I am going to continue to blog this story. I am going to continue to share what we are going through. Some is good, some not so good. Emotions, transparency, moments of joy and laughter and moments when the only place to cry is in the bathroom.

If this makes a difference to one person, this story will be worth telling. Remember the story comes from the caregivers side. I cannot even begin to share what Richard is going through. My husband amazes me. His strength and his character is unbelievable. But it has to be hard to be the person dealing with this, because I know as the caregiver, I have had my breaking moments.

If you are a sunseeker like we have been, please consider using sunscreen that provides a significant cover, watch out for odd looking moles, and educate yourself. Australia, Florida, California are listed as the top 3 places for melanoma. I am going to add South Africa to that listed because where we grew up the climate is exactly the same. Melanoma is one of the deadliest forms of cancer and we are dealing with this right now. See a dermatologist and get yourself checked out. This was the first thing I did since Richard came home. I am good, but the peace of mind is so worth it. At this point we have no idea if the medication Richard is on is working, so each day has become a memory making day.

Stay well, live wise, and enjoy the moments life has to give you.