There comes a time when you come across a story that captures your attention so much, you feel compelled to share in hopes of getting the word out. Graham’s story is just that.
For the general public, or at least how I viewed skin cancer at the ripe age of 21, there is this sense of non-urgency in being proactive about checking for skin cancer. Why? Because many of us believe skin cancer is caused by tanning carelessness, or if it is something that occurs, it won’t be an issue to confront until you’ve reached a certain age. Children with skin cancer? How can that even be a thing?
I can’t even say the word surprised when I read Graham’s story because that wouldn’t capture my emotions; it was more of utter shock. Diagnosed at age 9 with melanoma, Graham’s family suddenly had to confront the situation that their child had a form of cancer that was rare for someone his age.
Rather than shy away from the diagnosis, Graham went straight to work, battling cancer all the while raising awareness, and money, towards cancer research with the creation of his bracelets. Called “Graham’s Gifts”, the success of his bracelets directly correlates to the amazing dedication he has in being an advocate for skin cancer awareness and research. As of today, thousands of bracelets have been sold with a total profit of $85,000 going directly towards helping other children in his same position.
I was fortunate to interview Cheryl, Graham’s mother. Her candidness in describing her role as a mother, and her passion when describing Graham, let me know how special this family must be. If there is any opportunity to get the word out that yes, children can be diagnosed with melanoma, and yes, it cannot be tanning related, then we have an opportunity on this platform to change lives.
Can you generally describe what Graham is like? Other than he has a great smile!
One teacher described him as the “Homecoming King!” He is social, loves school, sports and life. He has a very special bond with his Grandpa, Rod. He does, however, live in pain. He hurts most of the time and is trying to find ways to manage the pain.
For those who don’t know Graham’s story could you give a summary of what occurred with the initial diagnosis? What was he formally diagnosed with? How did you all discover his spot?
Graham had a small red spot on his arm. It was not painful, but he is a kid, so he would pick at it. Eventually we had it taken off. Both his PCP and Derm indicated that is was nothing to be worried about or concerned. Obviously, they were wrong. He named his spot Adolf, and Adolf spent several weeks on tour, visiting different pathology labs. In March of 2013, the mayo clinic confirmed that Adolf was a melanoma. Clarks Level V, Breslow Level 3. Graham couldn’t even pronounce melanoma – he called it his Lemon-ola.
What were you and your husband’s initial reaction to his diagnosis?
Graham is one of 8 children – our entire family went into warrior mode. I am not sure we even had time to think about what we had in front of us.
What treatment and surgeries did Graham have?
Graham had several surgeries, biopsies, reconstruction and procedures. He is being followed by a wonderful team at the Mayo Clinic. Mayo does not generally use interferon, which we are aware, other facilities do. After reviewing the literature, it did not appear as if there was a survival benefit, so we have a little different approach. Graham has PET Scans, blood work, skin checks every 12 weeks, and meets with his care team at that time. He has a dermatologist, pediatric oncologist, medical oncologist and an interventional radiologist.
How has this process changed you as a parent? How has this process changed Graham?
It is life changing. Not for just Graham, but for our entire family. Certain things that would be a normal priority for a child, have fallen to the wayside. Fishing is important, Hockey is important, seeing the mountains and the ocean are important. Life is important.
For a parent, or any family member who has someone close to them diagnosed with skin cancer, what is the best advice you could give them?
Faith and Courage will become your rock.
The people that you meet along your journey will change you. They have, in one way or another, faced struggles that you or your child have ahead of you. They can offer support from a real life perspective. This has been very important to Graham and I.
How do you hope skin cancer awareness will grow?
When Graham was first diagnosed, I remember an adult oncologist coming into the room and seeing little Graham – he quickly left the room indicating that “this is a child in here – this can’t be my patient.”
He then realized that Graham was his patient. I hope that we can raise awareness so people understand that kids get this horrible disease too – rare, yes, but not unheard of!! Also, It really is not “just” skin cancer. It is a solid mass cancer that can kill you. It hurts, it is scary, and it is nothing to brush off.
If you could also give advice to those, particularly young, who tan frequently, what would it be?
Please don’t tan. Don’t “get a base tan, so you won’t burn on vacation.” Don’t get tan for Prom, or your wedding, or a photo shoot. Embrace your skin!
Graham’s melanoma was not sun related, but knowing what I know now, why would anyone, ever, take a risk.
Can you tell us Graham’s current melanoma status?
Graham recently had a positive PET scan that showed activity in his axilla, which is near his original tumor. We have follow up in March.
What is one thing you wish people knew about skin cancer?
Skin Cancer can kill you. There are steps you can do to reduce risk and increase early detection – everyone should be aware of these!
How do you, or how does Graham feel, his spots tell a story? In other words, what do his spots or his scars from skin cancer mean to him or to you?
His scars are simply a reminder that he is winning. He is stronger than melanoma. They are battle wounds.
Can you complete this sentence: “I am ________”
“I am so proud of Graham. When you see amazing, it changes you.”
Can you complete this sentence: “Graham is _______”
“Graham is amazing.”