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Mike’s personal story

Mike Walsh
My name is Mike and I am 26 years old. I live a pretty great life I think—got a great job after college, work hard, and play hard too. Not far from my wonderful family that lives in Anne Arundel County, I live in Baltimore with an amazing girl that I met two years ago and ever since has been the best part of my life. I have a story to share, and I hope it helps someone to understand, helps to deal, and maybe manage just a little better.

It was Monday morning and I was getting ready for work when I got a phone call from my dermatologist. I wasn't expecting more than, "Hey Mike, everything's fine, see you next time." I answer the phone, and her tone gave it away. For all I knew, I had a hemangioma removed from my neck, like she and everyone in the office thought. Instead, we had removed a large melanoma tumor. I had no idea what this meant at the time, I kind of stood dumbfounded before I realized that melanoma, meant cancer. Now here I was ironing my shirt and all of a sudden—BOOM—cancer. What the? I don’t get it. My family had no history of skin cancer. I wasn't a beach bum, never really had a great "tan." I played baseball my whole life but stayed protected. Had a few sunburns in my day, but never around the area on my neck that it was discovered. So seriously, what caused this? I didn’t know what to do. I took the day off to try and relax, not bother my brain with the stress of work as well. I didn’t know who to tell. I thought about keeping it secret from everyone as long as I could. Why add any more stress to anyone else’s life? But I decided that the people closest to me would need to know, that I would need their support. I’m so glad I did.

Hours later I was setting up an appointment to meet who would be my surgical oncologist. Lucky for me he had an appointment the next day, not a lot of downtime to research, to worry. I met the doctor the following morning and he explained what was going on. My pathology wasn't the best—4.5 mm with ulceration. From what I did have time to read up on, it was less than favorable. But my doctor was confident we could take care of this thing. Sooner than later, we scheduled to have the wide local excision and a sentinel lymph node biopsy. The secretary called me later that day with my date of surgery, about two weeks out. All I could do now is wait. Wait and think, and think and worry. And worry about my girlfriend. And worry about my parents. I just didn't want anyone to worry about me.

It was the longest two weeks of my life. I kept it pretty quiet at work. I constantly thought about it, worried about it, wanted it to be over with. I told my close friends, didn’t want them to think I was in a funk for no reason. Two weeks of meetings, conference calls, the daily grind. I kept occupied, but really it was a distraction. Finally the day for surgery came. Up early and off to the hospital. I met my family there, but soon I was signing in, changing, and getting set up. First I was off to nuclear medicine to receive the tracker injections that would identify the closest lymph nodes for biopsy. A little painful, but knowing what it would do, well worth the discomfort. What felt like minutes later I was being whisked away to the operating room, positioned for surgery, and off to la-la-land.

A few hours later and I awake from surgery, just happy to have it over with. Once I have my wits about me, I get to see my family again. I hear that everything went well. I see my face and it’s swollen, but what can you expect after getting your neck sliced open and having cancer removed? The doctor stops by, let’s me know it went really well, and he’d see me in a week for the follow up and results. A few days of healing and I got the follow up scheduled a week later. And I thought the two weeks before surgery was long?! I went home to rest and relax. The hard part, for now, was over. I healed up well, most swelling gone in a few days. Luckily I had a well-placed four-day vacation following my surgery. A fun distraction with the girl I love, away from my stress. I know everyone says it, such that it's almost a cliché, but you really don’t appreciate the simple things until something big comes your way. I spent my vacation time enjoying life and appreciating my friends and family.

When vacation time ended and it was back to work, I was nervous. I had a giant scar on my neck, complete with stitches and staples, and I was putting myself in an environment surrounded by people conversing and interacting with people who barely knew me to those that I knew since day one. In the end, it’s such a minor concern, but I was worried. I returned to a warm welcome, and although I especially noticed just how uncomfortable working at a desk all day can be, I was relieved to know I could get back a part of my normal life. It didn’t hurt that my follow-up was only two days later, but that Friday I went back to my doctor to have my scar examined and to get the ever so important pathology results. My Dad was able to join me for the appointment, I was just glad to see him again. My scar was healing just fine so the stitches came out, and all that was left was for the doctor to come in and go over pathology results. The next five minutes go down in history as the greatest five minutes of my life as the doctor explained—three lymph nodes removed; three lymph nodes negative for cancer. I was so relieved. It was like I had been holding up a Mack truck on my shoulders, for a month, and I finally got to put it down. I was advised that with my advanced stage I would have to be monitored closely, come back for PET scans, and would be referred to another oncologist to consider adjuvant treatment. But for now, I was in the clear, and it felt great.

This will not be the last time I have to deal with melanoma, I know that. But I sure hope it is the last time I have to fight it. For everyone else out there fighting—stay strong. Live your life and surround yourself with loved ones. They will support you to the end. Cancer doesn’t own you, but you can’t ignore it. And during your struggles, remember there are so many of us out there just like you, so many who are willing to lend a kind word. And there are even more of us who will work to raise awareness and gain support to make sure everyone comes out on top. And count me in that group, now more than ever.