Symptoms and diagnosis
I was a high school basketball coach, and I had a callus that broke on the bottom of my foot, right below my third toe. I didn’t think about it for a couple of weeks. When it didn’t heal, I went to see a podiatrist, a friend of mine, and he took an X-ray. He told me that I have a little cyst in there. He removed the cyst and sent it to pathology. Two weeks later, I got a call from him. He told me that I had a rare form of melanoma that appears on the bottom of the feet or the palms of the hands. He referred me to MD at Anderson Cancer Centre in Texas for treatment. That was the start of my nine-year journey.
Treatments underwent and side effects
My family was pretty devastated. I remember when my father was dying of cancer, he had end-stage breast cancer. In the 1980s, they didn’t know what to do with a man with breast cancer. And I remember I said to myself, I’m going to do everything I can to prevent this from happening to me like doing regular checkups, no alcohol or drugs, and doing exercise. I had no mutations in any of my genes. I don’t know why this rare form of cancer affected me when I had none of the predispositions to have it.
In 2017, the disease came back immediately. And in 2018, I had my left foot amputated. The disease came back again in 2019, and it kind of worked its way up my leg into my shin. And I had two more surgeries. Then last year, an undiagnosed tumor in my ankle area grew large enough that it fractured my tibia, my shinbone. And my only recourse right in the middle of this pandemic was to have my left leg amputated.
Right now, I am on a clinical trial of a drug that’s designed to try to shrink these tumors in my lungs. It’s not going to save my life. But the way I look at it is it may save somebody else’s life. I kind of look at this as something bigger than me, that I can make a difference in somebody else’s life that I don’t even know. I started chemotherapy for the tumors in my lungs.
It’s kind of a three-week cycle. I have the drug-infused, the two drugs infused for a couple of hours. And then about 2 hours after the infusion, I react fairly violently. I threw up and had a fever, headache, and body aches.
Managing my emotional wellbeing
I think that’s probably an ongoing thing. I have bad days, like last weekend when I was in treatment and started to cry. And a nurse came in and just put her arm around me. That made me feel better. One of the things that have gotten me through this is my three Fs- faith, family, and friends. You really find out who your friends are when you get a terminal diagnosis. You find your purpose in life, and you live that.
Things that keep me happy
It’s Certainly my family who gives me happiness. That’s what gives me purpose in life. So I love my family. I have a very strong faith in God and I don’t blame God. My faith has certainly given me strength.
Things I appreciate and love about myself
I’m a better person now. I’m a stronger person because of cancer. I don’t say that my body is ugly. Some people may say that, but to me, I’ve earned every single one of those things that you think is ugly.
Life lessons I got
I will discuss the four truths that I’ve learned over these nine years. They’re just one sentence each. And I have them on a post-it note here on my desk and I see them multiple times a day and they work for me. Number one is you need to control your mind or your mind is going to control you. Our brains are hardwired to avoid pain and discomfort and to seek pleasure. So we need to control our brains. The second one is to embrace the pain and the difficulty that we all experience in life and use it to make you a stronger and more determined individual. Number three, what you leave behind is what you weave in the hearts of other people. Number four is pretty self-explanatory. As long as you don’t quit, you can never be defeated.
Message to cancer patients and caregivers
You can do more than you ever thought you could do. We’ve got to have hope. We’ve got to have the belief that things are going to get better. So if you ever get in that situation where I’m too tired, I hurt too much, you’re only at 40% of your maximum. You have so much more left to give to yourself. So don’t ever think you’re out of the fight just because you’re hurting or you’re tired or you’re down. Find what is inside of you. Pull it out and use it for yourself.
I agree that there are a lot of stigmas. From waist up, I look very healthy. I look very normal. I’m here with you telling people you can do more than you think you can do and to use pain to make you a better person, and things like that. But from below my waist, I don’t have a leg. And I’ve got all these scars, and I kind of look at my body sometimes, it’s all scarred up. But the way I look at it is I’ve earned those scars. I went through hell to get those scars. So I’m going to be proud of them, instead of having the stigma.