My Melanoma Story
By Parker Smith
July 7, 2011 – My best friend, mentor and business partner passes away unexpectedly at 40 years old. At that time I was 10 years and 2 days younger than him. This is my first true experience of such a brutal loss. It scares the shit out of me, enough to go to the doctor for a complete physical. Just to be sure everything is ok…
At this point, I think I am in the best physical condition and the healthiest in my life. I have a strong daily yoga practice. I run my first Tough Mudder with some friends (and carry my cross fit partner down the last portion of the race). I learn to surf. I travel. I love. I feel a deep gratitude for all the blessings in my life.
Aug 19, 2011 – Around my birthday, I go to the doctor for a full physical and everything proceeds normally. I feel healthy, happy and strong. As the appointment ends I remember, “My mom has been bugging me to get this tiny mole on my back looked at”. The doctor cuts the tiny black dot off the middle of my back. A bandaid and a lollipop later and I am back home to my healthy, happy life.
A week later I get a call from the doctor about my blood work and the biopsied mole.
When the doctor says the words “Malignant Melanoma”, all I hear is skin-cancer. I have known lots of family and friends talk about dealing with skin cancer. They get it burned off, or it is neatly removed one affected cell at a time. The doctor can tell by the tone of my voice that I do not understand the gravity of my situation. She starts saying words like: “Stage 4”, “Currently 3mm”, “Extremely Aggressive”, “Surgery Immediately”.
I work from home as a software geek and already have 3 monitors full of windows open to every piece of information, research, treatment and risks I can find.
As the doctor is talking, I am reading facts like:
- Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer.
- When there is distant metastasis, the cancer is generally considered incurable.
- The five-year survival rate is less than 10%. The median survival is 6–12 months.
- Stage 4: (2-4mm) Distant metastasis: 7% survival.
A calm comes over me. Faced with what appears to be a death sentence, and knowing that there is nothing I can do in this moment to fix anything, I go a little numb, finish the day’s work and go take a few back-to-back yoga classes. If I’m going to die, I am going to die enlightened and flexible like Gumby.
Sept 5, 2011 – The week of my surgery. I ask the surgeon about all the different kinds of treatment. Does he know about advanced Mohs surgery? He delicately chuckles and says yes he helped pioneer that technique and he has been doing surgery longer than I have been alive, and MY only option is taking 3-inch margins and down to the muscle. Basically cut out as much as possible around the area in hopes of catching any possible cancer cell.
He makes a comment that I am not the youngest patient he has treated, but I am close.
After some exciting complications during the procedure, it ends well and I take some pictures of the large piece of “me” that now is floating in a small jar.
Inside that little jar are “hopefully” ALL the little cells that were about to kill me.
Inside that little jar are ALL my hopes to give good news to my family. (At this point I have told no one what has been happening).
At that moment, my entire future, every hope and dream was trapped in that jar.
Sept 17, 2011 – I receive a very calm and factual report that “the margins were clear” and that it appears I was extremely fortunate to have caught it when I did.
In that very clinical phone call, I was alive again.
I had to be careful: wear sunscreen; check my skin; don’t get a sunburn.
Now the numbness dramatically changed to every emotion I had refused to feel.
I felt like laughing till it hurt, curling into the fetal position sobbing, hugging everyone, all at the same time. Instead of doing any of that, I called my mom. “Mom. Don’t worry. Everything is ok now. I am ok. I just got the news that the surgery to remove the deadly cancer I had (and didn’t tell you about for 3 weeks) was a complete success and I am going to be completely fine. Oh, and you were SOOOO right, I should have had that mole checked out a long time ago.” *Note: Everyone listen to your mother.
Every Day After –
Today I try to use my experience as a constant reminder to be grateful and thankful for every little thing. I say “yes” to a lot more things. I am less afraid of taking risks and truly living.
I have a deep connection to the practices I have studied about Mindfulness and Being Present. But, I often feel like I am cheating because it is easy to live in the moment when you know what it feels like to think each moment is likely your last.
So many people have had their lives destroyed by this disease. Most people don’t catch it in time. They are forced to: suffer with chemo; multiple surgeries; the fear and pain of leaving a spouse and children.
To all the people who have lost someone to melanoma: I can’t imagine the pain of losing your parent; a sibling; the love of your life; your child; Your pain continues and I am very sorry for your loss. I join you everyday in yelling “F*** Cancer!”
One of the many new passions I have explored in “Life 2.0” has been running. After starting running in Dec 2015, I completed the Denver Colfax Marathon. My first marathon, and also my first ever race. I have continued training and on Oct 16, 2016 I will be racing the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund’s team.
During all my training I have learned lots about running technique, training plans, nutrition, race day rituals, and setting and believing in goals. But all of those details pale in importance to running for a Purpose. My Purpose for running is to continually raise awareness for this easily preventable, exceptionally deadly disease.
To all my inspiring running mates, it has been a great summer – now check your skin! Go to dcmf.ca for lots of resources and tools about checking your skin, and about melanoma. If you are somewhere you don’t mind shedding a tear, check out DCMF’s video “Dear 16 Year Old Me”.
I’m proud to support the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund’s work in melanoma awareness, prevention and research.
Here’s my ‘5 years cancer free’ cup!