Of Melanoma and Memories--Looking Back Over Five Years


The Sisterhood of Barb gathers for dinner

Sometimes I forget. Five years ago this month, we were parents of the groom, busy preparing for Michael and Becca's upcoming summer wedding. Dresses were being bought, tuxedos fitted, showers enjoyed, revisions being made to the rehearsal dinner when the intended site went out of business without a word to us. Almost incidentally, at the time of a different surgical procedure, Barb had a small lesion removed from her calf.

We were dealing with some complications of the primary surgery when the surgeon, herself stunned, told Barb that the leg lesion was a malignant melanoma. In disbelief, I did what any pathologist would do, and asked for the slides. I reviewed them and circulated them to additional colleagues,  especially dermatopathologists, who specialize in diagnosing diseases of the skin. Although the presentation was unusual, and the slides a little confounding, there was eventually no doubt that the original diagnosis was correct.

We entered the world of the Northwestern University medical system. Consultations and scans, and at the end of March, a major leg excision and lymph node dissection. As Barb lay in recovery, I was busy texting and calling friends and family, passing the word that the surgery had gone smoothly. The oncologic surgeon and plastic surgeon were both confident in their work, though I have yet to meet a surgeon who was not.

Barb came home to a painful post-op period, perhaps made a little more difficult by my aversion to narcotic pain killers. She probably suffered a bit more than necessary, but was able to keep a clear head and avoid any risks, long or short term, from opiods. The recovery, tough as it was,  was aided by the attention of her loyal friends, who I tagged as the Sisterhood of Barb. These ladies gave of themselves to ensure that all of our needs were met or exceeded. Their support was a Godsend.

The final pathology report was what we had hoped for. No residual tumor at the leg site, and no malignant cells within the lymph nodes. At this point the oncologic surgeon admitted he had been a bit concerned at the time of the surgery, the nodes being somewhat larger than he had anticipated. Fortunately, that was just the result of Barb's immune system responding to the insult of the original operation.

For the next few months joy over the wedding was interspersed with ongoing medical follow up. Frequent appointments with an oncologic dermatologist and the two surgeons. My battles with them over proper staging of the tumor, and what it meant for the long term prognosis. (Why does it have to take a pathologist to correctly interpret a pathology report?) We learned the intricacies of the Northwestern parking garage and waved goodbye as the less than patient friendly dermatologist moved to the East Coast. Finally, the pièce de résistance, full body surveillance photography au naturel. Those are photos that I have never looked at and have promised to Barb I never will!

Barb and I are no strangers to the ravages of cancer. Barb lost her dad, and I lost my father and sister, all before their time, to malignancies. I see it every day professionally. While we know of the advances in therapy, with Jimmy Carter the poster boy for successful treatment of advanced melanoma, we also know that the new immunotherapies don't work for everyone. So five years later, as we prepare for Laury and Alex's wedding, this time as parents of the bride, it is time to take a break and give thanks for the good life the last five years have brought us. Because sometimes I forget. But Barb never will.


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