I want to urge you to take your time to read this wonderful story. Kurt took the time to share with us his ups and downs with his battle with Melanoma, so take the time to read and be inspired!
Here is Kurt’s story:
Was tanning or sunbathing a significant factor in your developing melanoma?
Neither. I was an outdoors kid and always in the sun growing up in upstate New York near Lake Ontario, right on the Oswego River. I loved to hike in the woods, play sports, swim, work in gardens and fields, ride my bike and canoe on the river. In my 30s I developed a passion for hiking the Grand Canyon. I hiked nearly every trail in the Park and spent my days hiking the Inner Canyon. I don’t recall, but I’m sure I must have gotten a sunburn at one time or another; I hiked Grand Canyon at least 50 times and was never covered with clothing or sunscreen on any of those hikes.
How has your life changed since you were first diagnosed?
My life has changed dramatically. I live in Colorado and spend a great deal of time in Arizona. My winter tans after trips to Arizona were always the envy of my coworkers. To my recollection I never burned, always tanned.
I enjoy working outside in the yard, golfing, hiking, biking, and in general like sunny climates. The sun I love has become my adversary, almost.
My wife, Carol, and I love to travel and have been to New Zealand and Australia. I’ve been to Australia three times. In 2008 we were at Ayers Rock in mid-December – their hottest time of the year. When our flight landed at midnight it was 105 degrees. Over the next few days we hiked in 120 degrees at 9:30am in Kings Canyon in the Outback. It was so beautiful, and so hot. I was all bundled up, as usual. I’m extremely sensitive to most sunscreens so I must accept being really hot wearing a lot of clothing. But to try to stay as cool as possible I’ve built a wardrobe of sun-protective clothing. Whenever I go outside, whether the sky is blue or cloudy, I must wear a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirts, gloves and long pants, regardless of the time of year. I miss wearing shorts and short-sleeved T-shirts in the Summer.
Since my first diagnosis I have to think about how much time I spend in the sun. It has been a huge adjustment for me emotionally and mentally, and it has had a great effect on my wife. She worries about me constantly; if she sees anything looking like a bit of a burn or if my skin has tanned, even while using the best sunscreens, she worries. I’ve had biopsies taken from my face. Before the doctor performed them he looked at Carol and said, “Now you realize he’s going to have a scar here.” She replied, “I’d rather see a scar than lose him and never see his beautiful face again”.
I know that taking extra special care of my skin and using sunscreens and sun-protective clothing is essential to living a long, healthy life. But strangers frequently ask why I’m so bundled up in the middle of summer. Some people just come right out and ask, “Aren’t you HOT?” and sometimes I still feel a little out of place. But I see so many people with serious disabilities, I realize I don’t have it so badly, and according to my doctor, any future occurrence of melanoma is preventable. Due to my wife’s diligence he’s told me, “You will never die of skin cancer.”
Is there an inspirational quote or song that gives you strength?
I listen to Gordon Lightfoot, The Rolling Stones, Crowded House, Chris Isaak, The Moody Blues, Cowboy Junkies and many others for strength. One song would be “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”…but if you TRY, sometimes well you just might find you get what you need”.
I deeply relate to Lightfoot’s “The Watchman’s Gone”. One verse I love:
“If you find me feedin’ daisies
Please turn my face up to the sky
And leave me be
Watchin’ the moon roll by.”
I don’t worry about dying. One of my favorite sayings is, “The quieter you are, the more you hear.” I try my best to live my life by the Golden Rule and gain comfort from it. I’m also a great believer in limiting stress and conflict because of the negative effects all that angst has on my health. That said, my personal motto, even before melanoma struck, has always been, “It is what it is”.
What is the best advice you can give to someone who thinks that skin cancer can’t happen to them?
Unless you’ve never been in the sun, melanoma can strike anyone. It never occurred to me that I could one day be a melanoma survivor. My doctor was in shock when my first biopsy was a malignant melanoma. My oncologist said I didn’t fit into any of the five “categories” normally associated with those prone to acquiring melanoma:
1. I’m not light-skinned.
2. There is no cancer in my family, less malignant melanoma.
3. I don’t recall ever being severely sunburned as a child.
4. I had very few moles over my entire body.
5. I didn’t fall into the typical ethnic profile: those from particular European regions who get melanoma.
Malignant melanoma can occur on parts of your body you’d never believe, in places you’d never expect. My first tumor was on my chest in a place I thought had never been exposed to the sun. My oncologist explained how the sun literally narrows down right into the slightest “V-neck” lines of a shirt; he said the sun is literally “drawn there”.
I grew up in the generation that knew nothing of the dangers from getting sunburns or deliberately taking too much sun. Life was so simple. It was OK to eat eggs and butter; smoking wouldn’t kill you, less second-hand smoke (though I never smoked); and identity theft didn’t exist because most of us were lower-to-middle class people who somehow managed, despite whatever life threw at us.
Now everyone must be aware of skin damage from sunburns and learn what moles could possibly be a melanoma. My wife was first to spot an odd-shaped mole. I never would have thought about it.
But now – I am aware of ANY VERY DARK, PERFECTLY ROUND, RAISED moles – ESPECIALLY those “they” say are too small to be a cancer…those moles that are NOT “larger than the size of a pencil eraser”. I literally saw my second tumor growing, raising up on my arm. I asked my doctor to remove it. He refused. He said, “Oh, that’s nothing to worry about; I won’t even remove that as a precautionary measure.” It worried me terribly – I could SEE it GROWING. I begged my Physician’s Assistant to remove it; without hesitation he did and put a rush on it. Two days later, with tears in his eyes, he told me that my “tiny little, perfectly round, very dark brown mole – that wasn’t POSSIBLY a cancer…was my second malignant melanoma”. The doctor who refused to remove it, as well as his staff, was shocked when my wife informed them, “What he refused to biopsy was Kurt’s SECOND MALIGNANT MELANOMA.”
People must be diligent. Know your body; have someone inspect you on a weekly basis, especially those areas you can’t properly see; take photos of every part of your body and hold up a dime, or an indicator of sort to compare it in size to the mole. When you review those photos you can knowingly walk into your oncologist and say, “See, this is how big it was four months ago – please biopsy it”.
We all – every cancer Survivor – make adjustments; but cancer can not win; we must continue to live and do what brings us joy and peace, or cancer wins. So when I golf I always wait in the shade to take my next shot; I look for shade when I take my walks. I work in our yard and gardens when the sun moves behind the house. And I continue to purchase sun-protective clothing and am diligent about wearing it. Last summer at the post office a worker asked me if I was a bee-keeper because I always wear my big, four-inch, wide-brimmed hat, my “summer” gloves, a scarf around my neck and my shirt zipped completely up. He’d seen me hundreds of times but he just couldn’t take it anymore.
I haven’t counted my scars from the dozens of biopsies I’ve had but some were precancerous. I feel confident, only through vigilance, that I will never have another recurrence. April 2011 will be my ten year anniversary being cancer free.