Archive: May, 2013
You have cancer. You just heard the news, maybe an hour ago, or a day or a week, or even longer. The shock has subsided, and the initial rush of fear, apprehension, and pendulum-swinging emotions give way to a more steadied (although not always healthy) mental state. You look at the person who has been by your side this whole time –a spouse, parents, child(ren), or even a friend, whomever has assumed the shotgun role on your oncological ride. Chances are, the person you are looking at is about to have the more difficult time during the coming stretch of cancer fighting.
“OK, wait, so you’re telling me that the person WITH cancer has it easier than the person WITHOUT cancer? Are you crazy??” Well, yes, but hear me out. A cancer patient’s mental state cannot be well summarized in a couple of blog sentences, but to generalize, a patient thinks: “There is something wrong with me (and likely ‘seriously wrong’) and my body. There is a variable chance of survival; I want/need to get better. What can I do to heal myself?” While overly simplistic, this thinking falls under the general concept of “get better or die”. It becomes very VERY easy to stay focused on treatment and recovery when that is the endgame.
The caregiver, however, has the same focus without nearly the same support or the same leeway. Physically, they won’t go through the patient’s ordeals. They deal with all the other stuff, though – the trips back and forth to the doctor or hospital, the stress of the unknown, the adjustments to new priorities, and the responsibilities of “real life” that get thrust onto them. Often, they still hold down full time jobs and need to focus on keeping some kind of family life going. They become the main conduit of communication to everyone, which is no easy task. In short, they do almost everything else BUT get better, and they do it with far less support than what is offered to the patient.
Hey guess what – summer is already here! This weekend, grills will be fired up, picnics will be unpacked, boats will be dropped in, and hordes of people will descend on beaches up and down the Shore. We’re also a month away from the longest day of the year and the hottest three-month stretch. Everything we love about summer revolves around the longer, warmer days and nights. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of those activities happen outside, under the hot sun. Which means the chances of having your own melanoma blog one day just went up - if you’re not careful.
I will spare everyone the preachy “don’t end up like me” shtick and get right into how you can best put yourself in position to avoid long-term skin damage that can ultimately lead to melanoma.
First, what are the important things to know?
- The sun is at its hottest between 10a and 3p. This DOES NOT mean you are OK the rest of the day, especially beach days that begin before 10 and end after 3. It means that during the extended lunchtime hour, extra vigilance is needed. Reapply sunscreen. Sit under the umbrella or a shady tree for a while. Give yourself and your skin a break.
- Most sun damage occurs before the age of 18. For goodness sakes, make sure your kids are covered up and/or use sunscreen effectively. I have mentioned it before; this isn’t an excuse for responsible adults to irresponsibly ignore sun protection. You are not just setting the right example for your children, you are keeping yourself healthy.
- Getting a “base tan” is NOT sun protection. You just happen to be a darker shade of exposed. While it is true certain skin types are more susceptible to damage from the sun (sorry, me fellow Irishmen), it DOES NOT mean once you get that initial tan, your skin is protected and sunscreen isn’t necessary. The sun can do just as much damage after you neglected to protect your skin the first time as it can before you neglected to protect it the first time. This includes anyone with naturally tan or dark skin, too.
- Stay the HELL away from tanning beds. This goes for those who believe in the base tan, and the ones who are trying to extend that summer look well into football season. 33 states have some form of tanning bed restriction for minors, and even the FDA is putting warning labels on them. Not putting on sunscreen when you know better may be dumb, but getting into a tanning bed is stupid. Don’t do it.
So you know when you have one of those “that was awesome” smiling moments? Courtesy of friends, the Marlins, and the Phillies, the whole Sharpe family got to experience that together. Few things in the last year were as fun as last night’s Phillies-Marlins game in Miami.
My buddy Trevor played and coached in the Expos organization, and after his career, worked for the Marlins. He pulled some strings with his former co-workers to get us field passes for batting practice. His friend Angela brought us down through the media tunnel and right out onto the field. We got to stand behind the batting practice cage and watch both teams warm up, long toss, and hit. Domonic Brown launched some bombs into right field, and the constant crack of the bat was a great backdrop for taking in something few fans get to witness that close.
At some point, Angela asked Juan Pierre (who is back with the Marlins) to come over and say hello. Not only did he come by, he got Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley to do the same. So, one by one, they sauntered over and said hi to the entire family. Juan got a picture with us. Jimmy signed Josie’s Phillie Phanatic book – he smiled and laughed when I said the Phanatic was her favorite player. Chase came over shortly afterwards and went right to Josie, saying, “You’re not going to let Jimmy sign your book and not me, are you?” He signed Mom’s “Utley 26” tote bag, and got a picture with all of us.
Mother’s Day – the Hallmark-inspired combination of flowers, cards, brunch, presents, family time, and whatever else all you Mothers out there desire for the one day a year that is (supposedly) all yours. Even if we should be celebrating mothers every week, it is nice to fully appreciate the oft-overlooked continuous work they do to keep their families from becoming completely dysfunctional. This year, Mother’s Day gave me a chance to thank my wife for being Supermom to Josie and Tommy over the last nine months. It also got me to thinking about my Mom, and the generations of Mothers that have shaped my life, including one I never met yet is right next to me during my battle with melanoma.
See, my paternal grandmother, Francis Sharpe, died of breast cancer 43 years ago. Obviously, there is no way of knowing if her cancer had any hereditary impact on my current condition; it’s unlikely, but fill out the “Family Medical History” section on enough medical forms and the doubt creeps in. It’s also worth noting that both maternal grandparents had their own bouts with the big C, so my ancestors aren’t doing me any favors here.
My grandfather remarried a year after I was born, and I am lucky to have grown up knowing his second wife as “Mom Mom,” and one of my four grandparents – never as “my step-grandmom.” My cousins and I never lacked in the grandmother department, as she treated each of the Sharpe grandkids the same as the ones she already had.
With the beginning of summer looming and its increase in outdoor activities, May has become the self-proclaimed Melanoma Awareness Month among the different groups and societies that support melanoma patients and survivors. Monday, May 6th, is the day you will see black ribbons, Facebook pictures with black sashes, and the like (you’ll also see orange; apparently there’s a melanoma color debate going on. As a Flyers fan, I’m fine with either, or both). So, while I’ve written a ton about dealing with melanoma, let’s go over what skin cancer and melanoma are – and why you need to know how to prevent them.
Skin cancer is the general term for any cancer originating in the epidermis. Besides melanoma, that includes are Basal Cell and Squamous Cell cancers, named for the layers of skin they originate from. While “skin cancer” does not crack the top 20 cancers in terms of mortality rate, it is widely cited as the most common form of cancer diagnosed in the United States, with an estimated one million new diagnosed cases.
Melanoma, while a small (5%) subset of overall skin cancers, are by far the most deadly. There will be an estimated 9,500 melanoma deaths in this country in 2013 – that’s a little more than one per HOUR. Melanoma has a great five-year survival rate (98%) if detected early, before any spreading occurs. That number falls drastically to 15% when the disease metastasizes – i.e. spreads to different organs, the fun I am dealing with right now. So:
Thursday, May 2, 1996. Rumors Bar and Grill, owned by my friend and lab partner Eric’s parents. A bunch of Carnegie Mellon Betas crowded around the bar, celebrating my 21st birthday the night before the last day of classes. Shots all around – starting with Sambuca after dinner and ending with unlabeled Scotch (thanks, guys) in the early morning hours. Needless to say, I didn’t make my last day of classes that Friday – and my roommate nearly had to drop physics as a result of our prior night’s carousing.
Thursday, May 2, 2013. Holy Cross Hospital, owned by the Sisters of Mercy, the Miami archdiocese, and by Jesus (I guess). Jen and I and some medical professionals crowded around an IV pole, celebrating my 38th birthday before PD-1 dose #2, or as Brodie Bruce and I refer to it, the Second Shot, even if it’s an IV. If only they had black licorice-flavored immunotherapy… (Cuz is working on it)
Birthdays have evolved quite a bit in the 6,210 days since college, eh? Besides the literal “getting older” reminder, the focus shifted from “fun times” to “hey, I get one day this year for me!” Today, we don’t even really have that – with the Second Shot being the morning of my birthday, it was family breakfast before and some Primo Hoagies afterwards for lunch. (They just opened one here in Fort Lauderdale; this would be way more exciting if 95% of the menu wasn’t cold cuts and cheese, and a complete no-no on the cancer diet. Ah well, a birthday treat of tuna hoagie somehow wiggles its way onto the diet.)