Author: Monique Bourgeacq

Julie Barkley: Melanoma, Basal Cell & Squamous Cell Carcinoma Survivor

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Julie Barkley: Melanoma, Basal Cell & Squamous Cell Carcinoma Survivor

Honestly, it’s one of those things that you think will never happen to you. It never crossed my mind even after a wonderful childhood of beach days, swimming, swim team, lifeguarding, and trips to the river without much sun protection.

Flash forward to my mid-thirties and sure enough, there were the freckles my mom told me would show up—not just freckles but basal cell and squamous cell cancer. Oh boy, did I become best friends with my dermatologist and the biggest bottle of sunscreen ever. I never ever missed that yearly exam with the Derm.

Flash forward a few more years and now I’m 50. Wow, how did that happen? In March of this year, I noticed a new freckle on my lower lip and decided that it needed to be checked. I went to the dermatologist and she removed the spot and reassured me that it was nothing to worry about. At that time, she mentioned that we should just do my yearly exam while I was there. Yes, it was about 6 weeks early but there was no reason to come back. I left the office that day with two small spots removed off my back and one off my lip. I never gave it a second thought. I just knew that I would get the clearance letter in the mail and it would be no big deal. I was wrong.

I’ll never forget the Tuesday afternoon when I got the phone call at work. I had melanoma. I seriously thought she had the wrong number when she called me. In her next breath, she told me that I would be seen at City of Hope National Cancer Center that Friday. What? City of Hope was for sick people. Again, I was wrong. City of Hope is for treatment, recovery, hope, prevention and so much more!

On May 1st, 2017, I had a wide local excision on my left shoulder blade. Paths came back stage 1, clear margins. Amen! I am continuing 3-month exams at City of Hope and my mission is to educate people that say “it’s just skin cancer”.

Brigette Lea Guerrero: Melanoma & Basal Cell Carcinoma Survivor

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Brigette Lea Guerrero: Melanoma & Basal Cell Carcinoma Survivor

Well, this is a story of my cancer—melanoma and basal cell. I have always been outside…photography, jet skiing, swimming, golfing, hunting, fishing—never with cover. The tanner/redder I got, the better. I can remember at least 50 sunburns that I have had and some were worse than others.

I would actually go to a tanning bed in the morning and then sit by the pool before going out at night. Once it was so bad that I couldn’t open eyes. Yes, I burned my eyes. That would stop most but not me.

So, two years ago I got a wakeup call—melanoma on my calf. And just most recently, basal cell was found on my forehead, which resulted in at least 20 biopsies/frozen spots and a dose of Carac Chemo Cream.

It is something that I do blame on myself. It is still very hard for me to be in the sun because I want to be in 100%, with no hat but I can’t. I have purchased hats in every color. I have purchased swimsuits with long arms that cover. Do I like it? Nope, but it’s my new life. It’s my new summer. I will adjust. It makes me sad. I know I have more spots to have removed and probably another dose of chemo but I am alive and, hey, that’s something.

Danielle Dahm: Melanoma Survivor

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Danielle Dahm: Melanoma Survivor

I was diagnosed with stage 3 malignant melanoma (caused by tanning beds), on March 1 of 2000. But my journey really began in the mid 80’s when I was just 16. At the time, I had no clue I had turned down the road to Melanoma. I am half Chicano, and I rarely burn, but like many Washingtonians, my skin was paler in the winter.

If you only knew the price I paid for that “healthy glow”. There are comments in my yearbook about how tan I was. I’m half-Mexican and tanned easily. Why not speed up the process…so naïve. Please share my journey. Maybe it will save a life.

I began my quest to obtain that “healthy glow”—it was 1980 something. It soon became an addiction that I would satisfy in the tanning beds with the “newest bulbs”. I began purchasing unlimited packages and would go for 20-30 minutes a day, sometimes daily. This addiction lasted into my late 20’s when becoming pregnant with my third child temporarily stopped me from tanning.

During my last trimester, I showed a spot on the back of my left thigh to my family practice doctor (I found out later he was colorblind). He told me some growths are normal during pregnancy and he’d biopsy it six weeks after I gave birth if it was still there. Six weeks after giving birth to a beautiful red-headed boy, I went to my biopsy appointment, only to be told by my doctor that it didn’t need to be removed. He said to “just keep an eye on it.” So, I listened to him, after all, he had years of medical training behind him.

About a year later, we had already moved to Germany and I began to notice the growth would bleed and not heal. I had a “Health Wise” handbook and decided to look it up. Everything pointed to skin cancer. I took a deep breath and showed it to my husband. He read it and said, “don’t be silly.” The next morning, he woke up and told me “either you call the hospital or I will.” So, I called and made an appointment. During the biopsy, I can remember my doc saying, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” I went home not giving it another thought.

While I was waiting for results, the Air Force sent my husband from Germany to Texas for training. I remember the day I got the dreaded phone call, it still feels like yesterday, though it was 13 years ago. The voice on the phone said, “we have your results. You need to come in today. Do you have anyone that can come with you?” A neighbor drove me to the clinic. March 1, 2000, I heard these words, “you have cancer, and its bad. You need to fly to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. as soon as possible.” My children were just 7, 5 and 1. I had to call my husband in Texas, through fearful tears, and give him the horrible news. He was back in Germany within 12-hours. I left within a couple days. I breast fed my baby boy for the last time, right before I boarded the plane to the states, alone.

Thank God, my mom was able to fly from Washington state to D.C. to be my support. That month, in which I turned 30, I went through two major surgeries, one involving a muscle transfer in my right thigh. I was diagnosed with stage 3 malignant melanoma and given a 60% chance of surviving 5-years. In June of 2000, I began a year-long treatment of high dose Interferon. A month of daily IV therapy and then what was supposed to be 11-months of self-injection shots 3x a week. However, by March of 2001, I was down to 86 lbs. the severe flu-like symptoms had wreaked havoc on my body. I had every side effect and then some. My treatment was stopped 3-months early. That “healthy glow” I craved, had put me on this path of hell.

I urge all of you to love the skin you’re in. A journey such as mine is not worth the price of a tan. I didn’t think I’d see my kids grow up. Today, I feel blessed and know I am one of the lucky ones. Skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis, and it’s preventable. Over 9,000 people in the U.S. will die of melanoma skin cancer this year. You have a chance to save yourself or a loved one by sharing my story and spreading skin cancer awareness. If I can save one life by my journey with Melanoma, then it will not have been in vain.

Please share my story! It’s not just skin cancer.

Paul & Ruth: Melanoma Angels

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Paul & Ruth: Melanoma Angels

Hi, my name is Anna. My oldest brother Paul passed away July 20, 2011, from stage 4 metastatic melanoma. 17-months later, Dec 12, 2012, his wife Ruth also passed away from melanoma that was found in her brain. This is their story.

Paul’s melanoma was caught first as a mole that was taken off 6-years before he received the diagnosis that he had stage 4 cancer. He thought it was gone, but it went through his lymphatic system and was all through his body, and the main tumor was in his abdomen/groin area.

Paul’s original mole was discovered to have melanoma when he went to see a doctor about his allergies. The doctor asked him about it because it was bleeding a bit, but he was always scratched up from his work at the time. He had this mole his entire life. Paul wrote, “A biopsy later it was no longer my ‘beauty mark’. It had morphed in perception & name into the Big C, malignant melanoma. I talked to the surgeon. He left me feeling like a spinning penny pitched to call a bet between life & death. Heads-Tails. Heads-Tails.”

Paul spoke about the mole removal post-surgery. “There was a large hole where my mole used to be. It was covered by grafted skin harvested from higher up the same leg. There was also an incision in my groin where four lymph nodes were removed. I went from walking five miles at least a day to collapsing after two blocks. I was looped from the drugs I was given & shocked that my skin was trying to kill me.”

If anyone says to you, “It’s just skin cancer, you can just cut if off” they have no concept of how horrible this cancer is! It’s not that “simple” to take care of. Your skin is the largest organ on your body! We need to take care of the skin we are in.

When Paul had that mole removed he was married to a gal he married at age 19. A few years after his surgery they separated ways and divorced. He met Ruth while doing Bikram yoga to manage back pain from a horrible fall that occurred after his surgery. They were kindred spirits.

Although Paul and Ruth weren’t married, when the cancer returned and he got his stage 4 diagnosis, Ruth took care of him as he crumbled in pain and fought to survive. They did finally marry 1-month before he passed away in July 2011. His goal in life was to survive to see his 40th birthday, November 2011. He missed it by less than 4-months.

About 16-months after Paul passed away I found out about Ruth. The news came out of the blue and blindsided our family. My dad called me and told me she had cancer, that she was told she had 3 months to live. It was in her brain, and the biopsy showed it to be melanoma. She moved to Texas with one of her daughters. (Ruth had three adult children and one grandchild. Paul had no children of his own but had two nieces and two nephews under the age of four that I wish had a chance to know him better.) It was less than 3-months…within one she was gone!

People are always shocked to hear I lost two family members to cancer. A husband, and his wife. A brother, and a sister-in-law. But cancer is not contagious. It was perhaps what you would call a “coincidence” that they both passed away from the same type of cancer. But there are high-risk factors they both had that made them more susceptible.

Ruth was active as a cyclist back in her glory days, so she was in the sun constantly. And I am sure in her day, not much sunscreen was used, if at all. She was in a high-risk category for melanoma. Red hair, fair skin, freckles, light eyes—all these things increase your chances of getting skin cancer. I remember Paul mentioning she had a spot she should have checked out. I think she didn’t because she saw the horror that he had gone through, and she would rather not know. But then her life ended. Not as painfully or as drawn out as Paul. But the sweet woman that loved my brother and married him 1-month before he passed away was gone in an instant.

Paul was also a “pale male.” He got several blistering sunburns as a child. He never tanned, only burned. And he did use sunscreen. He was a rock climber, and he used it while out climbing. But he wasn’t vigilant to reapply, and to limit his exposure. He also had light eyes, another high-risk factor.

What this experience has taught me is to be vigilant, with myself and with my kids. Wear sunscreen and protective clothing, wear hats and sunglasses at the beach and when in the sun for extended times. My kids, myself, and my husband do not tan. We turn pink, then white again. I consider it a failure as a mother when I see my kids with any pink on their skin after a day at the beach, or at the park. The damage that is done to your skin as a child increases your risk for cancer in the future. We need to teach them young to respect the sun and protect their skin. And teach teens to NOT USE A TANNING BED!

Also, it’s so important to get your skin checked. Pay attention to changes in your moles. Learn the ABCDE’s of melanoma: asymmetry, border changes, color changes, diameter changes, evolving. I had a teeny tiny mole removed off my thigh that was diagnosed as “severe atypical.” The color had gotten darker, and when I looked very closely I saw a lighter color shadow, in an asymmetrical shape, around the mole. And with my brother’s history, you bet my dermatologist and I was quick to remove it!

I caught it very early, it was not cancer. But if I had ignored such a teeny tiny mole, then it could have become melanoma! The best way to prevent is to be aware. Take photos of the moles on your skin. Have a loved one check you out between dermatologist visits and point out anything they notice changing. And keep that yearly dermatologist appointment set on your calendar! It could save your life!

Also, don’t assume because you have dark skin you are immune. There are plenty of cases of people with darker skin getting melanoma or other forms of skin cancer. No one is immune, it’s just that some of us have a higher risk than others. But we all need to be vigilant!

This experience has also taught me that putting money towards melanoma research and charities like The Shade Project is very much needed and not a waste of our money.

Thank you for reading their story.

– Anna, Paul’s lil’ sis

Wyatt Sharphorn: Basal Cell Carcinoma Survivor

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Wyatt Sharphorn: Basal Cell Carcinoma Survivor

About two and a half years ago at the age of thirty-six, I had a little red spot above my lip that would come and go that I found, well, annoying. My mother (as mothers do) suggested a trip to the doctor/dermatologist. Going to a “derm” for a skin check is a painless thing, and the one I was going to go to was a particularly shiny, pleasant office – Snyder Dermatology here in Austin – so I had no qualms with going in to see what cream or different soap I needed to use for this little red spot that was, again, a little annoying.

Dr. Snyder took a look at my lip and told me it was basically (and semi-comically) dandruff from when I left a little bit of a beard/shadow on my face. Problem solved—just use a dandruff shampoo—yes, above my lip—a bit goofy, but easy enough.

Flesh eating bacteria or nasty rash was out so I comfortably laid down for a skin check on the rest of my body without much worry. This is a totally painless, and surprisingly quick process. A skilled doctor knows what to look for. Dr. Snyder started on my back and after a short while got to my upper shoulders, paused and looked closer at a couple areas. “You have a few basal cell spots.” I thought, well, okay, do I use head and shoulders on those too? I then naively asked “what are those?” She calmly replied “skin cancer.”

At this point a definite sinking feeling hit my stomach. Although, I had a general sense that “melanoma is the bad one” I really didn’t know what this meant for me. After finishing my skin check and finding a couple spots that were likely Actinic Keratosis “pre-cancers” (or “AKs”), I sat up and got the briefing on what I was dealing with. The AKs were quickly frozen with short blasts of liquid nitrogen and would most likely not return. The basal cell spots had to be cut on the surface to take samples for biopsies to determine if they were for certain basal cell carcinomas. Dr. Snyder, however, said they were “pretty classic looking” and felt confident they were. Indeed, a day or two later the lab confirmed that to be the case.

I learned that Basal Cell Carcinoma is a slow growing type of skin cancer that would be extremely unlikely to spread and cause me further trouble. However, I would need to have them surgically removed, and perhaps the most worrisome news to me was that no matter how much I protected myself going forward in life, it was likely more would show up—and that I would need to get a skin check from a dermatologist perhaps two to four times a year, likely for the rest of my life. I have since had a basal cell spot on my temple, arm, and currently I am scheduled to have one (possibly two) removed on my upper chest. I have also had several more AKs and did a rather unpleasant two-week treatment of topical chemotherapy on my face using a cream called 5-fluorouracil or “5-FU” to help prevent further AKs and lower the likelihood (but not eliminate) other skin cancers on my face.

I always thought I was “pretty good” about sunscreen and not getting “too much sun, too often,” but I will admit that in my twenties and the earlier years of my thirties I did sometimes like “having a little color” because I thought it “looked a little better.”

I spent some limited time in tanning beds in my twenties, several years driving around in a convertible in Los Angeles, occasional time on beaches or at parks, and many hours bass fishing on lakes here in Texas, and even being “pretty good” about sunscreen and sun protection through it, I did more damage that my very fair skin could handle.

The lifestyle change is something I am still getting used to. No more quick trips to the dog park on a sunny day without getting totally sun-protected with sunscreen (and usually an SPF long sleeve shirt with hood) first. When I go fishing, even in triple degree heat, I always have nearly all of my skin covered with SPF clothing – from long pants, to a long sleeve shirt, to gloves, to a wide brimmed hat, and a “buff” covering most of my face. When I meet a friend for lunch, eating on a sunny patio is something I always avoid. I have had all of my car’s windows tinted with a high-end protective film, including the windshield (don’t worry, that film is clear!). These are just some of the ways in which my skin cancer has affected my life.

There is also the worry of where the next spot will show up, how easily it will be removed, how it will scar, how many I will get, and so on. Again, however, I am one of the lucky ones with basal cell as one person dies every hour from Melanoma.

I am so happy to be a part of The Shade Project and be able to help an organization that is fighting what by most measurements is the most common and the most preventable cancer. When you donate, volunteer, or support The Shade Project, you are quite possibly saving a life, saving someone from medical costs and procedures that were avoidable with proper knowledge and prevention, and helping stop the disruption in life that skin cancer can cause.

I see big things for this organization in the future, and hope for little things for the future of skin cancer! Wear your sunscreen with pride, and please get your skin checked!

 

Shannon Hudson: Melanoma Angel

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Shannon Hudson: Melanoma Angel

My name is Michelle Hudson and I’m the wife of and was the caretaker for Shannon Hudson (5/28-78 – 10/9/13). Shannon was born and raised in Florida and spent most of his time outdoors at the beach and on the lake. He never wore sunscreen or a shirt and had a deep tan/red complexion. By the age of 15, he was an avid boater and also a roofer. Most of his adult life he worked an outside job never wearing a shirt or sunscreen and nothing more than a ballcap to protect himself.

Shannon had the same mole on the back of his left arm since at least 16 or 17 years of age. The mole was a light brown and average, nothing to worry about. After our first daughter was born in 2004 the mole started to get darker and seemed to be changing some—we were 25 and 26. One day in the time frame of about 2005-2006 the mole incurred some trauma as Shannon accidentally scraped it on a piece of metal at work. The mole then went away for about a year or so (we knew nothing of skin cancer mole watching or any of this). Around 2007 when our second daughter was born we noticed the mole had returned but now was like a small M&M under his skin where the external mole once was (boy I wish I knew then what I know now). My husband being the stubborn man that he is insisted it was fine, no big deal and all was well.

Around 2009 we noticed that the “lump” had gotten quite large, however, we had no health insurance. Everyone kept insisting Shannon get it checked out just in case. He felt fine, “it’s just a cyst” he assured everyone (tears…I sure wish I knew then what I know now). Finally, after obtaining an inside job with great health insurance in 2011, he was able to finally see a doctor about this now quite large lump on his arm (ping pong ball size). They did a biopsy and it tripled in size within a week—we were so scared—he knew it was bad. The [doctor] told us it came back as melanoma and we needed to be seen at Moffit Cancer center right away to get it removed. We went to Moffit two to three days later and the surgical oncologist took one look at Shannon’s arm and said “oh this is bad, you need this removed yesterday” and he was immediately scheduled for surgery. He had his lymph dye test and a few of his lymph nodes showed a little something so they decided when they did the radical excision on his back left arm they also removed six to seven lymph nodes. When I got home that night and did some research on melanoma I was floored. Basically, they said my husband had five years to live. I didn’t know what to do or say or think. We took out a cancer policy and a small life insurance policy.

My husband decided against Interferon as he wanted to continue to work and was young. The first year went well as he did his scans and went to his appointments and saw the dermatologist. However, as we came into the second year, 2012, he started to miss appointments, said he was fine. He didn’t need to miss work to see the doctor and he felt fine as they cut it out (wish I knew then what I know now). I stopped nagging. Our marriage was at a critical point and not a good one so I buried myself in my business and he in his work and we were like roommates.

Around January 2013 my husband started having back pains and night sweats and chalked it up to midlife crisis and our marital issues, but they got worse and finally, near the end of March he finally agreed to go to the doctor. He was told the cancer had spread to his abdomen and there was an 11-12cm tumor encased in his small intestine. He had to be given three bags of blood as he was bleeding internally and didn’t even know it. The cancer was also in his liver—five to six lesions. They told him six to seven months he would have to live but there were pills he could take that may prolong his life and shrink the tumors; however, the pills would only work for six to seven months—this was April 1st, 2013. He started Zelboraf in April 2013 and by June had seen major shrinkage on his tumors; we were so happy.

They did another surgery in July to remove 2 more melanomas on his back; however, they also discovered the cancer had now spread to his brain and he had 3 brain tumors. He did a stereotactic radiation and they took him off his Zelboraf for a week before surgery and a week after. This is when the pills stopped working. By August 12th he went back to the hospital and they determined the abdominal tumor was 16cm and the liver tumors had grown and the three brain tumors were untreatable.

On August 20th, the first day of school for our daughters, they sent my husband home on hospice. We spent the next seven weeks in love, laughing, holding each other crying, and I watched him as he slipped away day after day. On October 9th, 2013, I held his hand and cried with him as he took his last breath and passed at 6:47 pm. It was the most life changing event I have ever witnessed.