It was a spring day in April of 2012, after being filled with a lot of excitement getting ready for a long awaited retirement vacation to somewhere fun in the sun, Ambergris Caye, Belize located in Central America. Still at the age of 48 years old, playing outdoors and being in the sun is how life was to be lived for me then and now and throughout my entire life.
I had just retired four months earlier after serving 20 years as Correctional Officer and Law Enforcement Officer, and just started a new career as a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, in Evanston Wyoming.
When traveling to Central America it is recommended that an updated tetanus shot and some malaria medication be obtained before heading to Central America. That is how it all started. I went to see my primary care physician. Dr. Kennedy, from the University of Utah Health Care Center, who gave me tetanus shot on my left upper bicep. At that time I noticed a pencil size, round dark mole that I had never paid any attention to and decided to have it checked when I returned after my trip. It was slightly itchy and had a slight hint of red around the edges. I was more concerned about getting my blood drawn for a cholesterol check and a tetanus shot.
I then went on my vacation. After seven days of scuba diving, snorkeling, hiking to the ruins, riding on boats, swimming in the ocean and playing in the sun for 7 days on the beach, I returned to Wyoming/Utah. It was then when I went back to my doctor to have my cholesterol results read. I asked him to check out my unusual mole and pointed it out. Dr. Kennedy looked at it and said it’s better to be safe and have it tested. He took a punch biopsy and sent it to pathology, in May 2015.
It was within a week I received a phone call from him, which I have never received from my doctor during at least the past 10 years that I had been seeing him. He told me I had Melanoma Skin Cancer and he had sent a referral to the U of U Huntsman Cancer Center. He urged me to call him back if they hadn’t contacted me within the next week. He explained although the mole was small and at a stage one, that is was urgent that I obtain treatment and contact the Huntsman ASAP. It ended finally being a Stage 3 diagnosis.
I admit that I was shaken and frightened to hear that I had skin cancer and a lot of what he had said was a big fog. I learned about melanoma and how I may have damaged my skin throughout my life. As a teenager I used Crisco oil for tanning lotion, swam at the pool every day as a kid, played in the sun my whole life without ever using sunblock. Skiing in the Utah Mountains, and camping in the outdoors was my passion. When I reached around age 36, I started to use tanning beds occasionally, so I could prevent getting burned when being outdoors. As a 17-year old teenager, I went to Lake Powell for about one week and got sunburned pretty bad and it made my skin look orange. All of the above factors I learned made me a high-risk candidate for skin cancer, even though I am of Hispanic origin with olive colored light brown skin.
Dr. Antabacka at the Huntsman Center is awesome and conducted my first surgery to remove the tumor in June of 2012. Approximately 4 lymph nodes were also removed near the original site and sent to pathology. The results showed 1 out of 4 node came back positive for melanoma. I was given the option to wait and watch by ultrasounds or have the lymph nodes removed under my left arm. I elected to have my lymph nodes removed, which were approximately 35, two weeks after my first surgery.
The lymph nodes under my left arm tested negative for melanoma. That second surgery was painful to remove my lymph nodes and I had drain tubes and had to enter physical therapy to get my full range of motion in my left arm. I still have permanent numbness under my arm and under my bicep. It was a difficult recovery process after the second surgery. I was off work for approximately 3 months.
I was given the option for immunotherapy interferon treatments after the surgeries. After research and careful consideration, I had determined to enter a clinical study and decline the interferon. I entered a 5-year Polynoma 103A Clinical trial at the University of Utah and subsequently had the study transferred to Houston, Texas in January of 2015, after moving there. I still do not know if I am in the placebo or vaccination group. The study has stages of shots, exams, scans, blood tests and follow-ups. Initially, the doctor visits were intensive, and now there are at 3-month intervals.
What I have learned it that early detection was so important. I also learned a little too late how important it is to protect skin during the entire life span. I had no idea that tanning in tanning beds could be so deadly. Parents, children adults need more education on the long-term effects of sun damage. I am also thankful that I had my friend Lynette, who provided undivided attention, education and support during every part of this journey to this very day.
I am very active and still enjoy the outdoors. I now always use dermatologist recommended face and sun block, reapply daily every day of the year. I no longer lay or stay in the sun to tan. The best advice my doctor, physician assistant and nurses gave me was to enjoy life and the sun in moderation. I have learned how important it is to cover up using light clothing, jackets and hats while in the sun, and also to be continuously diligent about conducting skin and body checks for anything unusual.
I really believe that my life is to be lived with an attitude of gratitude, that’s how I continue to move forward. I still really love and enjoy being in the sun. I’m just a lot more careful while being in the sun. I also tend to share my story with other people who may neglect to have something that may seem simple, as having an unusual skin blemish checked.