“What color was your hair until the age of six?” That’s the first question on the patient questionnaire at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California.
When I was six years old in 1958, my father, mother, six of my nine siblings and I moved from New Jersey to São Paulo, Brasil, where my father was director of a dental and surgical products manufacturing operation. Forty-three years later we are still here and now I am married to Ivete, a beautiful Lebanese Brasilian. We have three young adult children: Andrea, 23, Robbie, 21 and Phillip, 19. I now own the family business, and we continue to sell high tech surgical equipment.
Being one of those people blessed with perfect health, I never went for a checkup until I was 42 years old, and even then I went for no specific reason – just a checkup. At the end of a long day of medical testing I saw a doctor who would read me my results and take my questions. I asked him about two large lumps I had in my right armpit. He said I should have them removed “to see what they are.” Being in the medical business I asked a surgeon friend to remove them, which he did with local anesthesia. After surgery I sat on the edge of the surgical table and kidded with him, for lack of anything better to say, “When you get the results, tell it to me straight.” Well… that he did. Two weeks later when I went in to have the stitches removed, he said “you wanted to hear it straight, here it is: you have metastatic malignant melanoma.” I felt my body slowly freeze, from head to toe – I knew what this meant, having worked my entire life in the medical field, and my first thoughts were, “this isn’t happening to me.” Two days later I was in surgery at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York, where the diagnosis was confirmed.
From there I went to post operative care back in São Paulo, where the surgeon told me about the John Wayne Cancer Institute. I was accepted there as part of an FDA controlled experiment, in which a vaccine used melanoma cells to “jump start” my immune system, with treatments once a month. This meant moving my family to southern California, to be near the treatment center and to enjoy what was supposed to be the last year of my life.
Those were hard times riding the roller coaster of my emotions, up one day, down the next. Three months into treatment, with high expectations I had a recurrence with a metastatic lymph node in my neck, which required more surgery.
Life progressed relentlessly, and slowly the roller coaster became flat, and the ride became less harrowing. At three years into treatment I was about to graduate to the next level, which meant treatments would occur only every six months. The “graduation ceremony” entailed head to foot body scans if these were clean I could move ahead.
The results came in from the January 1997 MRI of my brain, showing a metastatic lesion in the front of my brain, and a (benign) meningioma on one side.
I had read all along that as long as I was a stage three melanoma patient I was OK, but that stage four was the end – when cancer spread to the vital organs, which usually were brain, lungs and liver. This was the end.
“Not so,” said Kathleen, the saint who is my nurse at the John Wayne Cancer Institute. “Now there is something called ‘Gamma Knife’ where they zap the tumor in your brain without surgery.” Kathleen sent me to a nearby university hospital where the treatment cost was $30,000!! I couldn’t afford that so I returned to Brasil to consider my fate and look for alternatives.
The alternatives came through the Internet where I learned of an institution which offered a special package rate for patients who were from out of the country and who did not have insurance coverage.
The package rate was much more realistic. My family and friends helped pay for it.
As we left San Diego Gamma Knife Center at 11 a.m. one bright California morning, my brother who had flown in from New Jersey to keep me company commented, “We’ve been robbed.” When I asked him why he said, “Well look at you, two hours ago you had a malignant brain tumor, now you have none and there is no difference from looking at you!!” And it was true – the treatment was as benign as drinking a glass of cool water.
The good news is that this episode was the end of my metastasis anywhere, and two years later, I have been released from treatment as cured. Not a trace of melanoma anywhere in my system! What did I learn? I learned that God, whom I already knew personally, is good – no matter what life hands you.