A Message from Cartoonist and Author Marshall Ramsey:
I’m a Sagittarius, but I swear I was born under the sign of Cancer. Three of my grandparents had cancer. Both my parents are cancer survivors. And on April 17, 2001, I became one, too. But mine is not a journey of great courage or grit. No, I’m sitting here because of the gift of early detection. My melanoma was caught by the fourth doctor who looked at me. And for nearly 14 years, I’ve tried to pay that gift forward.
I’m lucky to be here — and I know it.
In 2000, I was speaking to a friend who had recently survived melanoma. I thought melanoma was an Italian lounge singer — I knew nothing about the deadliest form of skin cancer other than it came from moles. And I knew I had a lot of them. (I have dysplastic nevi syndrome) I had not gotten them checked in several years. I felt paranoid and after our conversation, I did what so many people did back in the day: I opened up the phone book and looked for a dermatologist.
I remember that appointment, but I don’t remember the doctor’s name. He looked at my back and I could see his eyes glaze over. It was like he was trying to count the stars. “Everything looks OK,” he said and sent me on my way. But my inner-paranoid voice told me otherwise. I immediately had another doctor check me. He did a punch biopsy of a mole, which turned out to be a severely dysplastic nevi. On a scale of one to dead, it was about a six. So I followed up by going to another dermatologist. He said if I wanted to have that mole removed, I could go to a plastic surgeon. He handed me Dr. Kenneth Barraza’s card.
And I promptly lost the card.
Thankfully my wife found it. She promptly kicked my butt to see Dr. Barraza. (I now know why married men live longer.) Dr. Barraza looked at my mole that had been punched and said, “That needs to come off immediately.” It had turned into a melanoma in-situ. I thought “in-situ” meant “buy coffin.” What it meant was the melanoma was still in the radial phase and 100% curable. Yet instead of being comforted, I panicked and asked that I be peeled with a potato peeler. I had six to eight moles cut off every six months.
A year later, Dr. Barazza saw a mole that looked odd to him while I was on the table. It wasnt one that he had planned to remove — but he did anyway. He cut it out and I didn’t think anything else about it. Tuesday, April 17, 2001 was the day of the Mississippi Flag election. People were mad about some of my cartoons and were calling me throughout the day. At 5:30 p.m., Dr. Barazza called and told me, “You have cancer.” I laughed — it was the nicest call I had received all day. Two days later, I woke up from surgery. My back still sports the scar from it. But the most painful scar was the one on the inside. For a year, I didn’t tell anyone I had had surgery. I nearly went crazy from the fear. Melanoma is an aggressive cancer. And it likes to come back. I had to learn how to cope.
A few months later, my family went to Destin (yes, I went to the beach!). Around six p.m., I went for a swim. A lady and her two girls were staring at my scar. I smiled and said, “Oh that, it’s a shark attack and it happened where your daughters are swimming.” She ran out of the water (it was the summer of the shark after all) and I found the peace I was looking for. It was that trip that I developed H.O.P.E. And hope has keep me going since.
H: Humor. I learned to laugh at what scares me.
O: Opportunity to Serve. I became a public advocate for skin cancer awareness. My friend Keith Warren (who lost his dad Leonard to the disease) started a 5K called Run from the Sun. We had discovered that so many people thought melanoma was “just skin cancer” and weren’t getting screened. So we built the race around a free skin screening and Dr. Barazza helped catch several melanomas throughout the race’s 10 years. I once heard a man on the radio say that he could watch his son grow up because he heard my message. Pay. It. Forward!
P: Physical Well-Being. I’ve tried to help my body take care of itself with exercise and proper nutrition. Most of the time. I ran the 2010 Marine Corps Marathon and raised $13,000 for melanoma research. I cried at the finish line. But I think it may have been from leg cramps as much as my emotions.
E: Educate Yourself. I had to learn how to talk to the doctors. Too many times my doctors sound like Charlie Brown’s parents to me — Wah Wah Wah Wah Wah Cancer Wah Wah. For example, when I heard “In-situ”, I freaked out. Now, my doctor and I work as a team.
Yesterday, I had my 76th mole biopsied. Yes, I am nervous as I await yet another report. But I will continue to appreciate each sunrise. And I will try to share the blessing I’ve been given. I know how lucky I am to still be alive. And I will continue to raise awareness as long as I am on this side of the grass.
So the moral of my story? Take control of your health. Get your skin screened. Why? I want you to have the blessing I received.
I tell people that good things come from bad moments. And in my case, cancer was a blessing. It woke me up and allowed me the opportunity to help others.
I can live with that.
(Marshall’s story originally appeared on his website. Illustration by Marshall Ramsey. Header image by Shawn Campbell, used under CC)