What was thought to be a 10 minute phone conversation quickly turned into an hour. What was thought to be set questions with expected answers turned into fluid conversations about something greater than melanoma itself. I was absolutely honored to interview Ross King, father of Jackie King.
Jackie King was 22 when she passed away from melanoma.
Her story came as a devastating shock to my 22 year-old self. I find at times fulfilling the classic 22 year old mentality; I am invincible, I am selfish, I am focused on irrelevant issues (including but not limited to what social event to attend Friday night, what dress to wear on a date, who broke up with who?!) But then again, when do most people grow out of that mentality? We see death daily, whether in newspapers or on the evening local news, but when do we take a step back and truly grasp the disturbance surrounding a person’s death? Who it impacts? What we can do to help? I must say, interviewing Ross was one of the most surprisingly humble moments of my time here at Polka Dot Mama. Something clicked. He made me think of Jackie not in terms of the generic cancer patient, but as someone I could see myself being friends with. Heck, it even made me question what it would be like if this occurred to me. And that scared me. At the same time, it solidified my decision when I applied for the position at PDM, never knowing full and well that this position would not only help those who have dealt with melanoma in some aspect, but in turn help myself. My intention in sharing Ross’ story is it provides you all with some self-reflection. May we see Jackie not as a distant human, but as your friend, sister, daughter, or self.
Jackie grew up with a mole on her back her whole life, but was concerned when it started growing rapidly around age 18. The nurses sang her “Happy Birthday” after her first mole removal surgery shy of her 19th birthday. Diagnosed with Stage 2 Melanoma, the shock of having skin cancer was not only an obstacle for her, but at times debilitating to the family. Ross stressed multiple times the hardships families have to endure when handling a sick family member, especially when it is a young daughter or son. “You have to have the capacity to hold onto faith and find a compass to just be able to get up in the morning and go to work. We needed healthcare coverage that work provided but I wanted to be with Jackie, knowing full and well that she may not be here for a long time. It put me into a level of depression and frustration that I wanted to be by her side but I wanted to provide some normalcy.”
He goes on, “Surreal is the only way to describe it. To watch someone who should have had a majestic life to only be told they have X numbers of days left before they pass on this earth, it is almost beyond description.”
“You can’t just go home, have a meal, go for a walk, without the constant thought that this person may not be by your side.”
His words seem to perfectly display the raw emotion and bitter truth that comes with an unimaginable situation. Watching his daughter pass, he vowed her legacy would live on and he would finish what she set out to do: fund research to discover a cure.
As she battled melanoma, she became heavily involved with Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA), shooting educational videos while also being an advocate for the Sunscreen Innovation Act, passed by Congress in November 2014 and signed by President Obama. If that was not enough, she discovered a specific, special program through the MRA where 100% of proceeds go directly to fund innovative melanoma research and used her platform to aide in their mission. “Since 2007, MRA’s investment in melanoma research has led to the introduction of eleven new treatment therapies for patients diagnosed with melanoma,” a huge feat for the melanoma community. At the same time, the MRA is the largest private funder of melanoma research and has provided nearly $68 million in research funding. A total of $146 million in melanoma research is happening due to MRA’s work and generous donor support, which is undeniably significant, considering melanoma is leading the field of oncology in the development of targeted treatments and new immunotherapies for cancer patients.
After her passing, Ross knew he had a commitment to fulfill by continuing her work. Through the MRA, the Jackie King MRA Young Investigator Award allows young, innovative researchers the tools to bring fresh ideas into the melanoma research community. Jackie loved this idea; a young, budding woman herself, she found that younger researchers, growing up in the digital age, had curiosity and capabilities that were often overlooked. To date, Ross has raised over $204,000 of the intended $225,000 goal. Not only that, but two additional grants were awarded in addition to Jackie’s grant.
Ross did not want Jackie to be remembered as a cancer patient or melanoma pioneer, though those things were two important aspects of her life. More so, he wanted her to be defined by her youthful spirit, passion for life, and beautiful voice.
“Her free spirit and ability to express herself through music is a part of Jackie that cancer has stolen. She was an excellent artist and singer. I want to be able to draw some of that back up.”
Ross described a special moment with Jackie on one of their many father-daughter walks. Often, he would look down as they walked, oblivious to the sights and sounds around. Jackie suddenly asked her father, “‘Dad, why do you stare down at your feet all the time? You need to look up and see the beauty in the skies, in the trees.'” Her exemplary observation of life crafted a life message that every day has purpose. It is now up to ourselves to discover such.