Wednesday, May 2, 2012

May is Skin Cancer and Brain Tumor Awareness Month

I recently discovered this (above post title), and found it very odd that the two cancers that have drastically changed my family share this month in the cancer awareness cycle.  So, to bring awareness to these I thought I would share my perspective on how these diseases affected me and my family forever.  While brain tumors aren't necessarily preventable, skin cancer is most definitely preventable.  There are a plethora of misconceptions about skin cancer that hopefully I can shed some light on when sharing my story.  The biggest one being is that "it's no big deal."  However, melanoma is a BIG DEAL.  Melanoma is deadly.

This may take a while...

Part I
It has been eight years since my family buried my father and my brother-in-law.  They each fought and lost their battles to cancer and died five months apart. 

I suppose the best place to start is April 2003.  Unfortunately at 20 years old, and the youngest in the family I do not know too many details of the beginning of my father's diagnosis.  I was a college student, I was a self-absorbed spoiled brat, and my parents and sisters treated me like a child - continuing to enable my bratty behavior.  What I do know is that my father wore hard contact lenses, and took very good care of his lenses.  Such good care that he could go a few years between ophthalmologist appointments.  What he did not know, and what most people do not know, is that melanoma can begin in the eye.  When an ophthalmologist dilates your eyes and shines that bright light, one of the things he is looking for is ocular melanoma.  My father spent a lot of time outdoors.  He served as a naval officer in Vietnam - long before UV tinted sunglasses that wrap around the periphery of your eye and good old SPF 50.  He had fair skin, light blue eyes, sunburned easily.  The perfect combination for melanoma.  

I used to think skin cancer was not a big deal.  I was a tanning bed queen, and referred to myself as tanorexic.   I wore sunglasses that looked cool, not ones that protected my eyes.  But in April 2003 my father finally went to the eye doctor and ocular melanoma was discovered.  After a few appointments with oncologists and a few body scans later the diagnosis was grim.  Stage four metastatic melanoma; 6-9 months to live.  At this point my family did not tell me this.  I knew dad had melanoma, and I begrudgingly stopped going to the tanning bed, but I did not realize how little time I had left with my father.

Then May came around.  It was Caleb, my oldest nephew's, 5th birthday party, and the whole family was there.  I can't remember where "there" was exactly, but it was outside at a park/game ranch type place...I remember bunnies in cages and picnic tables, and it was mid-late May, so it was hot.   At the time I didn't realize it, but apparently the party ended a little earlier than planned.  Don, my brother-in-law wasn't feeling well.  (Remember this is May - less than a month after my father was diagnosed with melanoma.)  Later that night Don started having seizures, and he was rushed to Gwinnett Medical Center.    He had been struggling with some odd symptoms for a while, but his doctor told him he was depressed.  He insisted that was not the case, and as a trained psychologist he would know if he was depressed.  Well Don was right; he was not depressed.  He had a tumor growing at the stem of his brain.  He was in his early 30's, had a five year old son, a 2 year old son, my sister was 3 months pregnant with their third child, and the tumor was inoperable.  I still remember being in that hospital room the next day seeing those tubes coming out of his head...I also remember telling God that this was ridiculous.  Even as I write this it doesn't quite seem real, even though tears are welling up in my eyes I feel like I'm writing  someone else's story.  

As the scorching hot summer melted into Atlanta's typical balmy autumn, I continued my escapades in bratdom.  As November began my sister gave birth to her third son; I still am astounded that even under all that stress, she had a fairly healthy pregnancy and birth.  After many treatments, apparently all cutting edge at the time, Don's health continued to decline.  The melanoma was unrelenting as it spread through my father's body.  I continued to draw further from God - the God I grew up worshipping and learning about since preschool. 

To fill the void I turned to the standard college party life.  I treated most people like crap; I was a horrible friend to the few friends that stayed around.  I drank, I partied, I spent a ridiculous amount of money on clothes and shoes and handbags.  Anything to try to fill a void that simply cannot be filled by worldly things.  I never dismissed the idea of a God of the universe, but I certainly dismissed the idea of a personal God who cared one bit about me.  I saw God as absent, passive, uncaring, condemning, and why should I spend my life trying to please Him when He clearly didn't care one bit about me or my family.  How else could two of the most godly men I know be suffering these horrific deaths?  How could a compassionate God take a father from his sons that don't even know him yet?  How could a comforting God take my father who I loved and leave me with a mother who all I did was fight with?  (I'll answer most of those questions later; I'm continually discovering more and more ways God is making "all things work together for the good" for me). 

As usual, the humid Autumn abruptly converted to frigid winter - well, frigid for a southerner.  It was winter break, December 22nd, 2003 - the day before my birthday.   I took my father to Piedmont hospital for out-patient surgery on his eye.  I did not quite know what for (I'm not good with all that medical stuff; makes me queasy), but I just knew that it was another surgery on his eye.  As he was coming out of anesthesia the nurse was going over the post-op at-home care.  Her words started to become harder to understand, my peripheral vision began to blur, she said something about rinsing the empty cavity...I woke up laying in a hospital bed in the out-patient ward next to my dad.  He wasn't even in the bed anymore, he was in a wheelchair waiting to go home.  At some point in the conversation with the nurse, I realized my father's surgery was to remove his eye completely.  I do not handle blood and guts well, and something about eyeballs just really really freaks me out, so when I comprehended the details of the surgery and what he was going to have to do to keep it clean and infection free - I was done for, and passed out in the middle of out-patient care on the cold hard vinyl composition flooring.  My father just laughed and said, "I thought you were suppose to drive me home?"  (Haha dad, I get that queasiness from you!) I am still not sure how I was enlisted for this task in the first place...

{to be continued...trying not to write the world's longest post}

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