Firefighter Raises Awareness

This post was written by a friend of mine. I won’t lie, every time I read this I cry. The melanoma club is not something that you want anyone to join. My heart sank the first time I heard from Shevais and it sank even more when I found out he was diagnosed with melanoma.  What Shevais may not realize is that he is not only educating those around him and making a difference he has also had a profound impact on me. I am inspired to work harder, to be louder and to never stop raising awareness and promoting early detection for melanoma. We often go about our day to day activities and never really know if we are making a difference. I am truly humbled by what Shevais wrote and I am so proud of him for using his experience and his voice to raise awareness to help others. This is not easy to do when going through something so life changing. There aren’t enough words to express how grateful I am to him for speaking so candidly and from the heart.

“I sit here on a plane, not quite Seat 7A, but close enough. Out of one window I see an incredibly beautiful sunset high above the turbulent clouds below. I also see my beautiful wife and my incredible 5 year old son. We are heading to Maine, a place we have fallen in love with, because my son said he wanted a new backpack and lunch box before he starts kindergarten in a couple of weeks. So it’s off to L.L. Bean to let him pick out whatever he likes (and eat some lobster along the way!).

One month ago I didn’t even know if this trip would be possible. I didn’t know if seeing my son grow up would be possible. You see I grew up around water my entire life. My Dad is retired from the US Coast Guard, so we always loved being around it, and my life has long rebelled around being in and on the water. My Dad is also a skin cancer survivor. Most of my 37 years on this planet I didn’t give two thoughts about being out in the sun during all seasons. On the boat, at the beach, by the pool, or just doing lawn work. I never had a shirt on, and God forbid I had a drop of that nasty, greasy sunscreen anywhere nearby. I didn’t see a dermatologist, heck I hate going to any doctor at all.

Then one day I noticed something on my back, odd looking mole, but hey it wasn’t growing, wasn’t doing any harm. I’m a healthy man, an active man, heck I’m a fireman for pete’s sake. “It’s nothing” I told myself time and time again. Then a good friend of mine who we had entrusted to photograph our son since he was 6 days old began an awareness campaign for melanoma. Tracy, the founder of the Polka Dot Mama Melanoma Foundation had been diagnosed with melanoma and had made it her life’s work to raise awareness and support research. I saw her activities. I made an appointment with a dermatologist.

May 20th I walked in for a full body scan, scary right? No not really it turns out. And the Doctor saw my mole and told me he could take care of it. 5 minutes later I walked out of his office and brushed aside his comments about a biopsy and “it should be fine.” That was Friday, then the phone rang on Tuesday morning, right before Memorial Day weekend. The nurse spoke in a business like manner, “your biopsy results are in, and it is malignant, we are scheduling you an appointment at UNC, we will call you with the date and time, do you have any questions?” Of course other than feeling like a train had just ran me over I had a million questions, but all I could gather was “no, I’m good.” The phone rang again advising me of an appointment the following afternoon with an oncologist. Wait. Oncology deals with cancer. This is just a mole right? I talked to my wife and my Dad later that day advising them of what was going on.

I went to the oncologist the next day alone, still not quite grasping the gravity of what was going on. That’s when I heard the terms excision, margins, sentential lymph nodes, biopsy, out of work for weeks. Cancer. I heard the word cancer. What? Wait, this is cancer? And they don’t know if it has spread. What does this mean? I have a 5 year old son, a successful career, retirement plans. I heard a million numbers and percentages thrown around, moreover I heard the word “surgery” and “soon”. I went about my Memorial Day weekend at the beach, out of the sun, worried sick and distracted. I reached out to Tracy, thanking her for her efforts, and wanting to know what was next. I had to tell my guys at work, had to tell my family, my close friends.

Surgery was bright and early Tuesday June 7th. I had no idea what to expect but I can tell you it wasn’t what I thought. First I had radioactive dye injected into my body. They traced the flow of blood to the nearest set of lymph nodes. I guess some of those are coming out today I thought. Then back to the surgery center. A few injections of some feel good medicines and off to the OR. I have no idea how log I was out, but we were home by mid afternoon. I was bandaged heavily, had a drain tube in my side, an abdominal binder wrapped around me. Not much pain, but that may have been thanks to the tramadol. But I hurt. I was sore. I was confused. How much did they take, how big of a scar. How long until I can shower, or lay flat, or even move? Moreover, when will I know if they got it all?

Throughout the next few days I did as much as I could to relax, and put my mind at rest, but I couldn’t. I’m a man of faith, and I prayed, and prayed, and prayed some more. I prayed for health. I prayed for understanding. I prayed for clarity I prayed for direction. And honestly, I cried. I cried for wanting to see my son grow up, graduate school, get married, give a speech at his rehearsal dinner and wedding reception, become a grandfather, to see my wife and I grow old, to retire to somewhere tropical. Who was I kidding, I just wanted to be alive. Over the next few days life got back to normal, I was more mobile, could shower, could drive. But I still didn’t know anything else. I went in for a follow up and to have my drain tube removed. Still no results, but a promise that good or bad I would get a phone call. That Thursday at 11:26 AM I got that phone call. And all I remember of it was the words “clear” and “we got it all.” I wanted to scream from the rooftops! I settled for some phone calls, texts and a Facebook post. I had gotten dozens of messages and calls in the past two weeks. Incredible encouragement, stories from friends who had suffered.

Nobody talked about it, except Tracy. She talked about it, and I eventually listened. And it saved my life. Do you get that? Somebody out there raising awareness got through to a stubborn man, and it saved his life, it saved my life. I have had a lot of time to think about what’s next. Honestly I want to live life to its fullest. To not let the small things get to me. To take time to stop and smell the roses so to speak. But the biggest thing that kept coming up was raising awareness. Making sure my friends and family were sun safe. Making sure that skin cancer was on the radar to my firefighting brothers and sisters. Cancer is not a new word around the firehouse, but you’re hearing it more and more. We are exposed to some of the most toxic carcinogens known to man. We are dying from prostate cancer, lung cancer, thyroid cancer. We know how we get it, we need to clean our equipment and our personal protective clothing. But our largest organ is our skin, and it absorbs everything. We need to make sure we have the time to wash our clothes and our bodies, and not in the rushed fashion while trying to not miss another run. We need to become sun safe when on calls, or trainings or in our outside life. We need to not bring this stuff home to our families. I’m just an ordinary guy, no different from anyone else, but now I bear the scars to show what not being sun safe can do to a body. My friends have already gotten tired of hearing me get on them about sunscreen, wearing SPF clothing and using shade and going to see a dermatologist regularly. But you know what? If I save just one life, just one, it will have been completely worth it.”

6 Responses

  1. Georgina

    So glad to hear that my daughter Tracy has made a difference in your life and I believe you bringing it forward will help someone else & then this will continue until one day we will all be more aware & a cure is found.
    Best wishes to you and your family,
    Georgina Callahan

  2. My own husband was my Tracy. The first mole was on my back. He was adamant- if I didn’t make the appointment with the dermatologist, he would. Thank goodness. That was 16 years ago and although I have had recurrences, I’m fine. With regular scans & careful self-examination, I have every reason to think I’ll be around for a long time, thanks to my Tracy/husband.

  3. Elaine

    Strength, courage and hope. Strength to get through the initial diagnosis, courage to stand up and fight it, hope for you, your family and your future. Three virtues that you and Tracy share.
    Thank you for sharing your heartfelt story. By doing so, you and Tracy are helping so many others that are and will be going through the same difficult journey.
    Wishing you and your family the very best of everything!

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