I had my stitches removed this morning. It has been two weeks since I had major surgery for malignant cutaneous desmoplastic melanoma on my upper back/lower neck. Sounds ominous right? It is. The surgery took five hours. The surgeon removed an area about 3 inches in diameter and about an inch deep. The incision is about 8 inches wide. This has been the biggest health challenge of my life.
A little over a year ago I noticed a small white bump on my back. It didn’t hurt. Looked harmless enough. I showed it to my dermatologist and general practitioner. Both thought it was probably a cyst and that “older” people got them. Not to worry. No need to extract it.
In April of this year I decided that it was becoming a visual blight and I asked my general practitioner to extract it in his office, which he did. The biopsy was then sent to a local Phoenix lab and then on to San Francisco where it was further analyzed by a leading PhD who specialized in cutaneous desmoplastic melanoma (DM for short) at the University of California.
Yep. I had it.
This particular type of cancer is caused by — you guessed it — exposure to the sun. Welcome to Arizona. I have lived here 34 years. Always had a pool. Worked in the yard. Played outside. Wore a hat ... well, not always. Rarely used sunscreen — especially not on my upper back and neck area. Big mistake. By the way, a misdiagnosis is typical for this type of melanoma. The surgeon told me that if I had waited two or three more months prior to having a biopsy taken, the prognosis would have likely been poor.
You’ve heard people say how their life changed directions in a New York minute. Mine did. Imagine going in to see your doctor to have a couple of stitches removed and have him tell you matter-of-factly that the lab results came back, and they were positive: ”Mr. Beydler you have cancer and need to see a surgeon immediately to have it removed.”
My first reaction was one of shock and disbelief. I have never had any real medical emergency in my 60 years on planet Earth. I staggered out the door and immediately went to Starbucks for a latte. Hey, priorities are priorities.
I had to get myself together before calling my wife. I sat in the car. I told her. We both cried. Suddenly, you feel very vulnerable. Of course, you think of the consequences for your loved ones, your friends, your clients in the event that this is the big one. But we didn’t sit around feeling sorry for ourselves.
Immediately, we began “Googling” every medical study we could find to understand what I had, what to do about it and what the odds were for survival.
The good news is that I had a 75 percent chance of lasting five years or more IF I removed the tumor immediately and the lymph nodes were clean.
We scheduled surgery for 17 days later. There is no bad news.
Everything worked out fine. The surgeon got it all. All nine lymph nodes were clear of any cancerous cells. I’m good to go.
So why would I share a story so intimate and personal with the general public? There’s a lesson here.
You and only you can take responsibility for your own health. My doctors sat back and watched my melanoma grow for a year. I had to take the initiative to have it removed. Only you can protect yourself from the very dangerous Arizona sun. Cover up. Wear sunscreen. There is a reason sombreros are designed that way. Check your body out on a regular basis. If something is not right don’t ignore it. Have it looked at. Don’t accept people telling you “Don’t worry about it” on face value.
It’s your life. You only get one shot at this. Make it count.
Jon Beydler is a 34-year Valley resident and the former Mayor of Fountain Hills who lives in South Chandler.