I glance over at my 5-year-old happily wrapped up in a Lego fantasy world and feel the familiar burn of tears behind my eyes. My dad will never see this. Blake will never meet the man so pivotal in shaping who I am and how I parent. Melanoma stole that from us.
My dad wasn’t your run-of-the-mill, ordinary father. He was special. Everyone who knew him loved him. He was brilliant, fun, and kind. The type of father who played catch with me for hours and always thought I was awesome, whether I was or not. The type of man who didn’t think twice before giving a stranger the shirt off his back. He fiercely defended the weak, befriended the bullied, and taught his kids to do the same.
As a small-town dentist, he was known in the area for technical skill, constant emergency availability, and a quick smile. His soft heart and willingness to barter with his patients who couldn’t pay was probably the reason we had a life-time supply of firewood behind our house and homemade donuts in our kitchen.
My father wasn’t a redneck in the traditional sense. Far from it. But he did sport a fresh sunburn most of the summer — the result of genetically vulnerable skin, working inside all week, and spending concentrated time out in the sun on the weekends. Those frequent sunburns and possibly his exposure to excess radiation in his dental practice led to the development of melanoma at the age of 61.
After some unusual behavior, it became apparent that my dad needed a CT scan of the brain. I remember this conversation like it was yesterday. “Becka, I have a golf-ball size mass in my brain. We don’t know . . .” The pounding in my ears drowned out everything else. We had 6 months before metastatic melanoma staked its claim on my father. During that time, he transitioned from a somewhat scattered, yet vibrant, bicycle-riding version of my dad to the silent, pale skeletal form he left us in.
It was so fast. I remember yelling at the hospitalist who had ordered the removal of all IVs and feeding tubes, “How does he have any chance of getting better if you take away all source of nutrition and hydration?!” He just looked at me sadly, trying to come up with a way to say, “It’s over,” without crushing me. I couldn’t comprehend how my rock, my loving dad, would soon be gone.
In his final moments, I recall sitting next to his bedside, holding his cold hand in mine, squeezing it so he knew how much I loved him. Though he was mostly unresponsive at that time, I felt a slight increase in pressure on my fingers. He knew.
Melanoma stole my father from my wedding, the births of my children, and every other future milestone. This is my melanoma story, but it doesn’t have to be yours. Although a devastating, rapidly lethal form of skin cancer, melanoma is preventable. My hope is that stories like this will make you more aware of the dangers of unprotected sun exposure and prompt you to get your moles checked regularly. The stakes are too high to ignore.
Blake flashes me his typical, quick smile and quips, “Look, Mommy. I did this one all by myself.” Proudly, I admire his technical skill. My dad may not be here in the literal sense of the word, but I see touches of him in my children, my brother, and my two sisters. His imprint is strong in all of us, and that gives me peace.
Kiss the ones you love while you have the chance, encourage them to practice sun safety, and have a happy, sunscreen-laced weekend.
Here’s what you can do to protect you and your family:
- Wear an SPF of 30 or higher daily
- Wear protective clothing when possible
- Avoid the hours of highest sun intensity between 10am -2pm
- Reapply sunscreen every hour if exposed to continuous sun
- Screen your moles and the moles of your family once a month
- See a dermatologist for annual skin checks
- Know the ABCDE’s of moles: Asymmetry, Border irregularity, Color, Diameter > 6 mm, Evolving lesion.
- The single-most accurate predictor of melanoma is when a patient notes a change in an existing mole. Get these checked ASAP.
- Be annoying and pushy with family members who are reckless with sun exposure or use tanning beds.
Rebecca Reinke, PA-C