Staying positive in the face of uncertainty

Before I was diagnosed with stage III melanoma in August 2017, I used sunscreen the way I think a lot of people do: I applied it once whenever I went to the pool or beach, and then I’d sweat it all off and end up getting burned. I also played hundreds of rounds of golf over the years, but never once thought about applying sunscreen.

I’m a pretty outdoorsy guy and I grew up playing sports. So, it’s hard for me to limit my time outside. But the scar from my surgery is on my right forearm, and I can’t take a swing now without thinking about what I’m doing to stay cancer-free. So I wear a lot of hats and long-sleeve T-shirts. I apply sunscreen most days. And when I play golf, I reapply sunscreen before the round and at the turn.

The importance of regular skin exams

I’ve always tended to be pretty freckly, so I’ve gotten regular skin exams since I was a kid. Growing up, my mom made the appointments for me. After college, I kind of let them lapse.

Still, the mole that turned out to be melanoma hadn’t been there eight months before when I finally went in for my regular exam, so it must have grown and spread pretty rapidly. There really wasn’t much to it. And there’s not any one bad burn I can point to that might have caused it.

Even my dermatologist wasn’t too concerned. But she shaved off part of it and sent it in for a biopsy.

Deciding what to do after my melanoma diagnosis

When my then-fiancé and I found out that the mole was actually melanoma, the diagnosis kind of took our breath away. I was only 30 at the time, and we were preparing for our spring wedding. Cancer was the last thing we thought we’d have to deal with.

After the shock wore off, we got a referral to a local surgeon here in Atlanta. He removed the rest of the mole and three adjacent lymph nodes to see if the cancer had spread.

It had. Two weeks later, I had 26 additional lymph nodes removed from my right armpit. Only one of them proved cancerous, but that meant my melanoma was considered stage III, which increased the likelihood that it could come back. I had to decide what to do next.

Why I came to MD Anderson for immunotherapy treatment

I had several treatment options after the surgery, including clinical trials, but I didn’t know what to do. I’d reached out to several well-known cancer centers, including one in my own backyard. But after meeting with Dr. Patrick Hwu at MD Anderson, I knew we were in the right place.

Instead of presenting us with three or four options, Dr. Hwu recommended an immunotherapy drug called Nivolumab. He stated definitively that this was the best plan for us. And just the level of confidence he expressed gave us a sense of peace that we hadn’t experienced since I was first diagnosed.

‘We’re going to be OK’

I started my immunotherapy treatments at MD Anderson in December 2017. And until August 2018, my scans were clear. I had a few lymph nodes in my neck recently that needed to be checked out, so I had surgery to remove them under Dr. Richard Royal. He’ll determine if they’re part of the original cancer or something else.

In the meantime, my family and I are continuing to live the healthier lifestyle we’ve adopted since my diagnosis — including using more sunscreen. Not having all the answers is hard. But regardless of what happens, we know we’re going to be OK and get through this. Cancer is a part of our life, but it’s not our whole life.

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