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A Father’s Skin Cancer Story: Early-Stage Melanoma & the Gift of Education

Jamie, an early-stage melanoma patient, and his son at a UVA soccer game

Jamie Meyerhoeffer contributed this post. In 2019, he developed early-stage melanoma on his lower eyelid and had surgery to remove the cancer and reconstruct his eyelid. He lives in Williamsburg and works for UVA Health, connecting providers in eastern Virginia with UVA specialists.

There are moments in each of our lives that we remember with great detail or emotion. Some are happy, some are a bit odd at the time, and some are sad.

In 2011, my son was born, bursting into this world only 17 minutes after we entered that delivery room. I remember precisely that moment when I first held him and realized that he was healthy. I remember the emotion of handing him to family members that first time that March day. 

More than a Freckle: The C-Word

I don’t remember the exact date, but I remember the first time I noticed the spot. It looked like a freckle. But I didn’t remember a freckle being at that delicate spot just beneath my left eyelid. And occasionally in the morning, that spot would have some dried discharge. Odd. I remember thinking I should monitor that spot, since my UVA dermatologist, Dr. Richard Flowers, had been helping me learn to watch my skin more carefully after I experienced the onset of psoriasis. We’ll circle back to the psoriasis. 

And I definitely have vivid memories of answering the call from the 434 number and the UVA ophthalmologist saying that word. The word that made my world seem to stop. The c-word that can make any person’s world stop: Cancer. My c-word was melanoma. She had said a few words after that, too, but I remember just really hearing melanoma. Everything after that word just seemed a bit of a blur, almost a dream. The kind of dream you hope to wake from and realize it was just a dream. 

I remember thinking of one thing in those moments of dream state during that call: my son. Would I see him graduate from high school? Would I see him graduate from college as a young adult? Those c-words can do that to you — put a laser focus in your mind on the thing(s) that matter most. And where did that melanoma come from? I had no family history of it, and I was healthy in all other respects in my early 50s.

Treating My Early-Stage Melanoma

As the call progressed, I realized my focus on the first word had started me down a path in my mind that wouldn’t be my path in real life. I was fortunate that the words “in situ” were important parts of my melanoma pathology. “In situ” means early-stage melanoma, in the top layers of the skin. Doctors would remove it with surgery.

I was lucky — my surgeon, Dr. Mark Russell, was an expert at it. He communicated with Dr. Maria Kirzhner in ophthalmology to review my information. They coordinated on scheduling, since I would need follow-up surgery to literally repair my left eyelid. I had never imagined anyone having surgery on an eyelid. But that was my path.

I went into Dr. Russell’s procedure room that day unsure how it would all feel and how it would go. He talked me through the steps. He marked the area around the spot to outline the incision.

I remember thinking, “He’s about to put a scalpel right near my eye and remove part of my eyelid!” That is a bit crazy when you think of it, but it was necessary.

The Gift of Education: Protecting my Son from Skin Cancer

Dr. Russell gave me a gift that day that I want to pass along: Prevention education. Not just prevention for me, but also prevention for my son. I hadn’t worn sunglasses as a child. My son does now. I had not worn a hat when I ran outside, but I do now. And Dr. Russell is a great advocate of the wide-brimmed hats that help better protect. I used to use sunscreen occasionally, maybe when I would be outside for more than an hour or at the beach. Now I use sunscreen anytime I’m going to be outside more than 15 minutes.

So let’s get back to psoriasis. As I think back about all of it, I truly believe a few things. My personal faith was important. My trust in every member of my UVA treatment team was important. Acting quickly was important.

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UVA dermatologists see patients at clinics in Charlottesville, Waynesboro, Zion Crossroads, and Culpeper.

How My Psoriasis Helped Me Catch Early-Stage Melanoma

But when I really think of it, psoriasis might have been the crucial thing. Dr. Flowers had encouraged me to watch my skin more closely. That’s what helped me see that spot that day and realize I needed to watch it. Had I not noticed that spot, or watched that spot, my path might have been much more scary. Imagine that, an obnoxious and pesky thing like psoriasis was helpful to me when a c-word later appeared. Isn’t that life, though? Sometimes there is a silver lining in any dark cloud, if we look for it. 

Again, I was fortunate. Some find their melanoma in later stages, and it is challenging. What I remember every single day now is the p-word. Prevention. Prevention is key. Prevention should be at the top of all of our minds when it comes to the c-words, because prevention can be more powerful than any c-word. Once any c-word sets in our bodies, it can be challenging even with the advanced treatments we have in modern medicine.

So rather than have that moment I had hearing the word melanoma on that call, please focus on prevention. And think of it this way, too — it isn’t just about you. Focus on prevention for yourself and for those around you that you love. The one thing I thought of first when I heard my c-word was my son. I underwent melanoma treatment so I could be healthy for him. So I could see those joyful moments in his future life. I hope the same for you — that you will take any steps you can to have as many moments as possible with your loved ones.

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