“My Voice” by Robb C. Sewell

Robb Sewell - 'Survivor'

Lucky Man by Robb C. Sewell

One of my all-time favorite musicians is Dave Koz. The man is a most amazing saxophonist — charismatic, and mesmerizing to watch. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of not only listening to his music and attending his concerts, but also interviewing him for a freelance gig. The first Dave Koz album that I bought was back in 1993 and its title was “Lucky Man.” Many of the tracks on that album moved me, inspired me, stirred my soul. Little did I know that exactly a decade later, I would personally learn what it means to be a lucky man.

My story begins in November 2002. It was a cold evening, right before Thanksgiving. My partner Eric and I were sitting in our family room, watching television, our cats Mulder and Tabitha by our sides. My bare feet were perched atop an ottoman.

It was at that moment that Eric uttered two words that would ultimately change my future, alter my life forever:

“What’s that?”

“That” was a small purple mark on the bottom of my foot. Eric walked over and checked it out, doing what I was unable to do. That fact is that I’m unable to see the bottom of my right foot. When I was a toddler, it was discovered that I have a clubfoot, a deformity that in time required numerous surgeries. Surgeries that left me with scars, both physical and emotional; radical and experimental procedures that destroyed my Achilles tendon and that left my ankle fused. Surgical procedures that left me unable to see the bottom of my foot without the aid of a mirror.

I’m lucky that Eric not only spotted that mark on my foot that day but also said something about it.

We thought it was a blood blister. That’s what it looked like anyway. We both moved on, not really giving it much thought. I probably stepped on something, we thought. But by the early part of 2003, the mark had not gone away and, in fact, had gotten larger. We decided it was worth having our family doctor, Kenneth Goldstein, examine it.

So, off I went to see Dr. G. sometime in February. I was experiencing other problems with my foot at that time so Dr. G. referred me to an orthopedic surgeon, Rick Raimondo. And so after getting all the necessary referrals, I was off to see Dr. R. He examined me and recommended removing the lesion. In a worst-case scenario, he explained, it might be melanoma.

Melanoma. I had heard the word but didn’t understand the urgency, the severity of the situation. Nor did I understand the ramifications. My boss at the time did and told me, “Forget work! You’re having the surgery as soon as possible.”

And that’s what I did. It was a Wednesday, at a surgical center in Mount Holly, NJ. Dr. Raimondo removed the lesion and sent it for biopsy. I went home in pain, hobbling around, yet another operation under my belt, yet another scar to add to my ever-growing armor.

The weekend passed. I began to feel better, stronger and called my employers to let them know how things were going. I hung up the phone and just chilled out for a while. And then the phone rang. It was one of the nurses from Dr. Raimondo’s office. She said Dr. R. wanted to talk with me. Dr. R. got on and then calmly broke the news, “The biopsy results came back and the lesion tested positive for melanoma.”

I don’t know where my mind was that day for the words that I uttered were, “Oh, that’s great news!” Dr. Raimondo then had to explain, “No, you don’t understand. You have melanoma.”

The words rocked me to my core. Dr. Raimondo said he was certain that the melanoma had been caught early but he still wanted me to go to the Fox Chase Cancer Center for a consultation. So that’s what I did. The doctors at Fox Chase told me that I was lucky. The melanoma had been caught early. No further treatment was needed. No chemo. No radiation. Just biannual checkups at the Pigmented Lesion Clinic at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

I was grateful that the melanoma had been caught early. The fact is that the melanoma of the foot is especially deadly. As my doctors explained to me, the fatality rate of melanoma of the foot is 50% within five years if it’s not caught early. I am incredibly grateful Eric spotted it and said something. Had he not, I doubt you’d be reading my story right now.

And the truth is, my cancer diagnosis made me reflect on my life. Like so many other people, I had dreams that I had either forgotten or neglected as I pursued other things in life. One dream in particular resurfaced after my diagnosis: the dream to be a writer.

I had written numerous stories as a child, and even wrote a murder mystery novella back in 1984. Then, in the early 1990s, I wrote a number of short stories. But, after that, writing went on the back burner.

Fast forward to 2003 and the dream to be a writer, the passion to write, was renewed with intensity. In time, I pursued a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Rosemont College. Over the years, I wrote a number of short stories, a play, and a novel, all examining man’s tendency to be self-destructive, each as a vehicle to prick my reader’s heart, mind, and conscience. And I snared a freelance gig writing entertainment and style articles. My fiction has been published in a few places, and I’ve received and been nominated for writing awards. Not bad. And, I have no doubt that none of this would have happened had it not been for my diagnosis.

As the years passed, I’ve gone to dermatologists and the Pigmented Lesion Clinic for check-ups. On occasion, there have been a few scares. A suspicious lesion on my leg. A strange mark under my toenail. But, time and time again, I got the all clear.

In August 2009, a week or so after Eric and I were married in Provincetown, MA, I went to the Pigmented Lesion Clinic for my check-up. During the examination, the doctor brought in another physician for a consultation. I was up on the table, my legs spread apart, as they both examined my groin. They then dropped the bombshell: they detected an abnormality in my groin, some kind of swelling that they believed was a hernia.

So, I off I went to Dr. Goldstein, who disagreed with the dermatologists. He didn’t detect a hernia but instead found swelling in the lymph nodes. Of course, there was concern that the melanoma was back so he referred me to a surgeon who said all three doctors were correct: I had a hernia and swollen lymph nodes. Surgery was scheduled to repair the hernia and biopsy the lymph nodes.

In October 2009, I went under the knife once again. During surgery, the physician found a mass in my groin in addition to the hernia and swollen lymph nodes. It was removed and biopsied. Luckily, all was OK. The mass wasn’t cancerous. The hernia was repaired. And the biopsy came back clear. Apparently, an infection had caused the swelling.

After surgery, my right testicle began to swell, not an uncommon side effect of hernia surgery. And it continued to swell, to the size of a grapefruit. It was painful as hell but I joked with friends that I’m sure I’d been popular on the beach in Provincetown, sporting such an impressive package.

After about six weeks, the swelling went down and the testicle returned to its original size. Yet, I began to experience intense stabbing pains in what I refer to as my “nuttage”. And then Righty began to shrink in size. By Christmas, Righty was about a quarter of its original size. So much for sporting an impressive package.

In January 2010, I was off to a urologist who put me through a battery of tests that showed the presence of a mass in the right nut. He sincerely believed it wasn’t cancerous and instead a result of the trauma inflicted during the hernia surgery. But, at that point, there was no way to rule out the possibility of cancer. For months, I endured severe pain in my nuttage and in my legs where the nodes had bee biopsied. Additionally, I lived under the fear of potentially having testicular cancer. Sleepless and restless nights were my constant during this time.

I met with my urologist in April 2010 and he gave me my options: repeat the MRI in September or go ahead, remove Righty, and biopsy it. I opted for the latter. I couldn’t imagine spending another five months with such uncertainty and with ever-increasing pain.

Righty was removed in May 2010, and replaced with a prosthesis I’ve named Puck for a character on the television series Glee. Yes, I have a warped sense of humor and name my prostheses and metallic implants. Why not? Life is far too short to not follow your dreams or not indulge your whims. About a week after surgery came the news: all clear. No cancer. I broke down in tears. Five months of worrying, of uncertainty, of pain were at long last gone.

Almost eight years have passed since I got word that I had cancer. Am I bitter? No. Am I resentful? Not at all. The fact is I was and I am lucky. Eric saw something out of the ordinary and said something about it. And I did something about it. My life has been changed forever and for the better. I’ve met cancer survivors and become friends with people I would have likely never known. I’ve realized my dream of being a writer who inspires his readers and who provokes their minds and beliefs. I’ve pushed my body in new and exciting ways, including the LiveSTRONG Challenge bike ride. And come September, I’ll be participating in a 68-mile bike ride for individuals living with HIV and AIDS. I’m grateful to be able to give back to those who need help just as my family, friends, and doctors helped me.

As I said, I’m a lucky man.