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Paul & Ruth: Melanoma Angels

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 it 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