“My Voice” by Chad Whitman

Chad Whitman - 'Survivor'

My story begins in the fall of 2005, just before my 28th birthday.  I had a mole that was on the back of my head hidden under my hair.  I’d had it my whole life but it had always been just that, a regular mole like all the other ones I have.  One day I noticed it seemed to be a little irritated, but initially I didn’t think much of it.  I’d hurt it many times before by either scratching an itch or using a comb so this was nothing new to me.  It was more of “Oh yeah, that stupid mole that I always forget about.  I must have scratched it again with my nail or something.”

As the next month or so went by it didn’t seem to be healing but instead it seemed to be swelling.  It was hard to tell for sure since it was on the back of my head it made it kind of hard to see.  That’s when I decided that I should have my dermatologist take a look at it. I saw him and he suggested we do a biopsy but didn’t give any indications of what it may be.  The mole was slightly too large for him to remove so I had to go to a plastic surgeon to have it taken off.  About 4 days later he called me and asked if I could come to his office immediately.  When I arrived he took me back, sat me down and said, “I got the results back and it’s not good.  The mole tested positive for Melanoma and was in the surrounding skin tissue as well.  I’ve made an appointment with a surgical oncologist at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning for you, all you have to do is show up”.

The doctor confirmed it was Stage 3 Malignant Melanoma and the tumor had penetrated nearly four millimeters into the skin.  He explained how aggressive Melanoma is because of its rapid metastatic behavior and that my case was quite serious.  I was told that the best-case scenario I had about a 40% to 50% chance of surviving for one year.  Since Melanoma metastasizes so quickly, my treatment plan would be surgery first, then maybe radiation / chemo only as follow up treatment.  They took a six inch diameter around where the mole was and scalped the back of my head, removing all tissue down to the skull.  The missing tissue was replaced with skin grafts from my leg.  They also did some exploratory surgery of the lymph nodes in my neck, which confirmed the cancer had spread into them, but fortunately only on the right side.

Following this, I began radiation treatment.  I received three doses a week over the course of three weeks.  The target areas were the back of my head, the right side of my neck and my right shoulder.  The radiologist explained this would kill both my hair follicles and the sweat glands for the entire area.  At the end of the treatment, all the hair on the back of my head and right side of my neck fell out and has never really grown back like it was before, if even at all.

As the next few months went by, the cancer continued to spread like wildfire.  I had two more surgeries on my neck, which removed over 50 lymph nodes in total.  A follow up CT to these surgeries revealed “something” in the brain that now needed further investigation.  Turns out the cancer had spread into the brain and formed a 1.2 centimeter tumor, which would need to be removed.

So here I find myself, roughly eight months into my diagnosis already having three surgeries, radiation treatment and now facing brain surgery.  The tumor was located in the part of the brain that controls speech and language.  My biggest risk post-op would be I would have to re-learn how to speak.  To be honest, I started to loose some of my hope at this point.  I tried to remain positive and was going to fight as hard as I could, but it just seemed that the Melanoma was fighting even harder.  I had to come to terms with my current reality, so I made a will and got my personal affairs in order.  Facing my own mortality at 28 because of cancer was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.  It kind of felt like it was happening to someone else.  I called all my family and friends to basically say good-bye and tell them I loved them one last time.  I didn’t know if I’d live or die, or if I lived what kind of life I’d have after.  Would I speak?  Would I not?  To be honest, it just altogether sucked.

The day came to remove the brain tumor.  I hoped that when I dove into the rabbit hole I’d come out the other end alive and in one piece.  I changed into the gown, met with the nurse and walked into the OR.  Laid down on the table, had the IV’s hooked up and then came the mask.  Fade to black…

The next thing I remember I opened my eyes and realized I was in the recovery room.  I overheard one of the nurses talking about how Britney Spears just had her second kid.  I jokingly said, “Yeah, she probably stopped for a pack of Marlboro’s and an ‘In & Out’ burger on her way to the hospital”.  We all started laughing and then I started crying.  I realized not only did I make it through and I could speak, but also I was still up to snuff on my celebrity gossip!  I had never been as excited to talk about something so stupid in my life.

After a few months of healing up, a scan revealed a strange spec in my right lung.  It was only about two millimeters in size so the doctor said it could be anything from yet another Melanoma tumor developing to a piece of phlegm.  We took a wait and see approach since it was so small, but decided it was time to start some chemo.  However it would be a different kind than the normal liquid injection type; it was a pill that I took every night before bed and was meant for long-term use.

A year passed and I was continuing my chemo pills when a scan revealed the spec in my lung had all of a sudden tripled in size.  Knowing the risks, my oncologist skipped a biopsy and went straight to the surgical route.  I had my fifth and final surgery in December 2007, a right middle lobectomy.  It’s a procedure where they removed 1/3 of my right lung and a portion of my rib to test the bone & marrow for cancer.  The tumor in the portion of lung was positive for Melanoma but thankfully the bone and marrow were clean.

I kept taking the chemo pills for another six months and all scans continued to come back clean.  Finally in May 2008, nearly 2 ½ years into my battle, my doctor pronounced I was officially disease free!!  I went off all medications but still have scans every three months.  It’s now been one full year and I continue to be disease free.

What I hope others can learn from my experience is to never loose hope.  No matter how bad the diagnosis, how bleak the prognosis or how utterly desperate your situation may be, cancer forces you to deal head on with incomprehensible challenges and decisions about your own life.  At times it feels like the proverbial “one step forward, two steps back” situation.  It did for me at times anyway, but even at my darkest point, I still refused to accept that cancer was what would take my life.  I’ve since made it a priority to do all the things in life I always wanted to do, find good in a situation no matter what and most importantly to live every day like it was my last.