Early detection, prevention key to skin cancer patient’s survival
By Gremlyn Bradley-Waddell
A little pink spot, about the size of a pencil eraser, appeared on Ladd Smith’s right leg about a year and a half ago.
At first, the married father of four figured he scraped himself doing yard work, but he became concerned when the spot didn’t go away after six or seven months. After the doctor who administered a routine physical exam said he wasn’t sure what the mark was, but that he could biopsy it, Smith decided to see a dermatologist. Soon after that appointment, he found himself meeting with oncologists Jade Homsi, M.D., and Mark Gimbel, M.D., of Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert and learning exactly what that little pink spot meant.
Taking no chances
“It was metastatic melanoma, and it was going up my lymph nodes,” Smith says, recalling the December 2011 skin cancer diagnosis that shook him to his core. “I thought I was going to die.”
The 43-year-old, self-employed nurse anesthetist from Queen Creek says he’s always been the healthy and athletic type; even during that routine physical, “everything was perfect,” he says. But since the tiny melanoma had metastasized, or spread, to the right side of Smith's groin, the oncologists didn’t want to take any chances on the cancer moving any further through his body. Smith had 18 lymph nodes removed and followed that with a course of interferon therapy, which left him incredibly weak, caused him to lose weight and his nails and thinned his hair.
“It was pretty tough stuff,” he says. “I'm glad to be off of it.”
For now, Smith must have a CT scan and see the doctor every three or four months to make sure the melanoma hasn't spread to any other organ, and he’s just now starting to regain his strength. Homsi says it’s estimated that one in 59 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma in his or her lifetime, and that one person dies from the disease every hour. Melanoma has been on the increase over the past three decades and, unfortunately, no one knows why. The good news, the doctor adds, is that the five-year survival rate for someone whose melanoma has been caught early is deemed to be greater than 95 percent.
Early detection is best defense
“While researchers are continuing to investigate new therapies to improve melanoma outcomes and the Food and Drug Administration has approved three melanoma drug therapies since 2011, prevention and early detection remain the best defense,” Homsi says, noting Banner MD Anderson has one melanoma clinical trial underway and two more opening shortly.
In an odd way, Smith is glad to have gone through this experience. He said he’s met wonderful people as a result, including Homsi, with whom he enjoys deploying his gallows humor, as well as countless Banner MD Anderson doctors, nurses and fellow cancer patients.
And although he’s not proud of it, he admits he wasn’t always sympathetic to others going through health crises like the kind he’s been dealt. In fact, before his own run-in with melanoma, he heard an acquaintance had received a diagnosis, and Smith says his silent reaction was, “Get it cut out and move on.”
Now, along with his newfound appreciation of the disease, he’s found a true sense of sympathy and empathy.
“I just didn’t get it,” he says. “I didn’t realize melanoma can kill you.”