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This is Brave

This is Brave: Warrior to Warrior

Our warriors are many things…grateful, connected, thankful, determined, enlightened, educated, strong…BRAVE. They are part of a greater community of amazing individuals faced with the massive hurdle that is cancer. Through reading all their stories, they’ve proven that one thing is absolutely certain…we’re stronger together.

In that spirit, past and present warriors have shared personal messages to each other. Some are related, some have never met each other, but they’re all connected by a shared journey and determination to BE BRAVE.

To every skin cancer warrior and survivor.

By: Holly Rowe

What a unique and challenging time we are dealing with right now. The good news is…while many of us are self-isolating at home, we are less impacted by the sun! But I know when we are able to return to some sense of normal life, many of us will rush to participate in outdoor activities. By nature we are all sun worshippers, it has been a very difficult transition in my life to realize that the sun can hurt me. But thanks to protective clothing and great companies like Coolibar, when we do finally get to bask in the sun, we can do it responsibly and with great protection.

For all the nearly diagnosed, stay strong and try not to let the worry of what is happening in our world coupled with your new diagnosis be overwhelming. There are many improved treatment options that can help you and positivity is key in overcoming this new challenge. Just know you have an army of fighters, survivors out here rooting for you, supporting you and here to listen. Together we can accomplish anything!

To my husband Steve. Love, Marilee.

Steve Hamilton is my husband and one of the strongest people I know. Since the day of his melanoma diagnosis in 2006, he has handled this unexpected journey with grace, strength, positivity and determination. I don’t recall a day where he appeared defeated – and there were many days he easily could have been. He willed himself to beat this beast and did so with a positive attitude that I am still in awe of. I know in my heart of hearts that in addition to the phenomenal medical care he received and the support from family and friends, his positive attitude was a critical part of his survival. There were times when HE was the one actually keeping ME – his caregiver – upbeat. Please read his story and if you or a loved one is battling a melanoma or any serious disease, please do everything that you can to be determined to stay positive. There is hope.

To my Melanoma brother Pat. Thank you for being on this journey with me. Love, Bethany

By: Bethany Greenway

I have a brother, not in the literal sense or by blood, his name is Patrick Guddal. Patrick and I have been walking a nearly identical path for nearly four years now. Patrick and I were both diagnosed with stage III melanoma in the summer of 2016. When I finally met Patrick at a skin cancer event here in Austin, TX I felt an immediate kinship. For cancer patients, it’s hard to find someone who truly understands what you have been through and how it changes you. Patrick “gets it”. He understands the trials and tribulations that a cancer diagnosis brings with it. During his fight Patrick chose to become a melanoma advocate and educator. He has spoken at multiple events sharing his story and the importance of early detection. His strength and self-awareness became a pillar to support his newfound mission to educate others about skin cancer and how dangerous it can be. I am inspired by his openness, perseverance, and willingness to share his story to help others. I hope you are too

To my friend in advocacy Robyn. Your unbeatable positivity is incredible, Susanne.

By: Susanne Milne

I met Robyn for the first time at the yearly MRF Hill Day in Washington D.C. and was immediately impressed with her positive spirit, her great strength though her melanoma journey and most of all her natural involvement in advocacy. Robyn’s own melanoma story, as well as her brother’s, speaks to the heartache of the illness but also of the amazing stories of recovery and how to find new purpose in life during and after a cancer diagnosis. Robyn is involved in advocacy in several ways; with children, with adults, in the workplace and all efforts are both locally, in her neighborhood, and on a state level with the MRF. Clearly, advocacy has become a calling for Robyn, which is truly to the benefit of the melanoma community as she clearly excels at bringing awareness and education about melanoma. Robyn has an inner strength that has allowed her to stay positive and strong throughout her journey. This shows in her great smile, unbeatable positivity, and her direct and friendly interactions with anyone she approaches regarding the melanoma cause. I look forward to all of you to read Robyn’s amazing story, to follow her on social media and to meet up soon in our Be Brave Coolibar shirts.

To my friend and mentor, Doug. Thank you for your leadership, Cheryl.

By: Cheryl Stratos

When the going gets tough Doug Brodman steps up to lead the charge. I met Doug when he was elected to the Board of the Melanoma Research Foundation and it was there, we connected as fellow Stage IV survivors. Our stories were similar as we both had received Christmas-time diagnosis that set our worlds on fire and landed us in clinical trials that would not only change our lives forever but ignite a quest to help find a cure for melanoma.  Doug has brought a great energy to the MRF by incorporating his mad business skills to energize the group. He has worked to initiate new strategies to grow the MRF that will ultimately fund more clinical research and help advocate for patients looking for resources to survive. Melanoma is the most competitive race you’ll ever run, and Doug understands how to help win the marathon. I am honored to know Doug and to call him a friend and mentor.

To my incredible daughter Marit. We are so proud of you! Love, mom.

Some friends lament that Marit pulls out her ‘cancer card’ a lot. And, I say, thank goodness she does! Her commitment to the fight against melanoma has been her living legacy, and at the young age of 15 no less. As she has grown up, so too has her message and purpose. It’s been a journey from promoting awareness that pediatric melanoma actually exists, to imploring politicians to fund critical melanoma research, to most recently serving as the self-appointed ‘sunscreen queen’ among her friends at her all-girl high school; these friends now diligently practice sun safety for fear of Marit guilting them. I’m beyond proud to be her mom and hope she continues to play that ‘card’ to the benefit of us all.

To Jess, the Ocular Melanoma sister I’ve never met. Your gratitude is inspiring. Thank you for your story!

By: Lindsay Zubeck

Like Jess, all I wanted was an all-American life full of adventure and happiness. I never imagined ‘full of adventure’ meant adding in the ‘cancer adventure’, but it did. I also, would not wish this adventure on anyone, but it has made me a better person. The journey, the whole journey – the highs and lows, the peaks and valleys, the moments I couldn’t stop crying in fear to the moments when the good in so many people made my heart feel more gratitude than ever.  My life before cancer, during treatments and now living with cancer – the ‘cancer adventure’ has been the best one yet and that shines so clear in Jess’s writings too.

Initial treatment of ocular melanoma does not involve chemo, we don’t lose our hair or look like we are battling the biggest journey of our life like others – but internally we may be a mess, many of us lose our sight or our natural eye and for months if not forever we walk around wearing a patch and/or a prosthetic  eye. That is when we can’t hide our cancer. The patch is a forever accessory for Jess or for me I pray I don’t accidently touch my prosthetic the wrong way and it flips upside down in public or pops out! 😊

After my initial treatment, I never wanted to look in the mirror – I didn’t know who I was – I could only see tumor filled eye looking back at me. But then a year and a half later my tumor began to grow back, and my next treatment plan was enucleation. I didn’t know what to expect when I awoke and removed my eye dressing but when I did, I finally found peace. Jess – I loved that you shared you expected to see someone foreign, but you saw your bright familiar face, your smile, your on-point eye-brows and you saw you again. After enucleation – I too saw myself again – even my on-point eye-brows. Just one eye not two.

When you read someone’s writings and you laugh, you cry, and you feel like the same words could come from your mouth you know they have felt and traveled on your journey before and with you even if your physical paths have never crossed. Jess – your words are truthful and honest, they are brave, courageous – your gratefulness is inspirational. Living with cancer and one eyeless in your 20s, I in my 30s is not fair but I admire you for finding the best and not missing out on anything and everything life has to offer. The only choice you believed you had was whether you’d let this break you. You choose to find ways to embrace your journey the whole journey and I am honored to share our stories together. Life is too good to not enjoy the ride and thank you for taking us on your ride. Be brave my friend, my OM sister! Let’s celebrate #BeBrave #BeGrateful #BeYou together. #youcantakeoursightbutnotourvision

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Skin Diaries This is Brave

This is Brave: Holly Rowe

In 2014, I had a suspicious mole on my chest biopsied and was told it was fine. Nearly a year later, the scar was healing in a raised, strange way. I didn’t really notice until I went to an event in a sheer evening dress and the scar appeared to be a huge lump. I went back to my dermatologist to get a second biopsy.

THE call came while I was in NYC shopping for an Emmy Awards dress in honor of my nomination for a national Sports Emmy. The doctor told me I had a rare form of Desmoplastic Melanoma. I wasn’t really that worried because I was so uninformed about this deadly disease. I thought they would just cut it out and all would be well. Instead, I have been in the fight of my life since that day.

As it turns out, the type of melanoma I have is rare. 3 in 1 million people get Desmoplastic Melanoma and its usually farmers or people who work in the sun. I am not making that up. I was so DUMB not to cover up and protect my skin. I don’t believe in living in the past, but I REALLY wish I could go back and change things. Specifically, the following…. which I hope you take to heart:

  1. DO NOT TAN I was a tanning queen in high school and have worked outdoors at college football games for more than 25 years. Melanoma is 86 percent preventable. WE MUST PREVENT IT!
  2. TAKE YOUR DIAGNOSIS SERIOUSLY I didn’t in the beginning. I always thought “It will be fine” and then it wasn’t. At every stage, I was presented with more aggressive treatments the doctors didn’t push so I declined to not miss any work. Looking back, I would have chosen THE MOST AGGRESSIVE treatments at every turn.
  3. GET A SECOND OPINION I wish I had every step of the way. Doctors, while well-meaning, CANNOT KNOW what is truly happening inside of your body. What I have learned is that melanoma spreads quickly and is DEADLY. Attack it aggressively, be vigilant in screening.

The initial spot on my chest turned out to be a large tumor under the skin, it was removed along with several cancer-free lymph nodes. Yet, six months later, I had another tumor under my arm. A more significant surgery removed the tumor and 29 lymph nodes. Still, no sign of another spread even after a high dose of interferon chemotherapy. Then we found a tumor in my lung.

Through all of these surgeries and treatments, I don’t think it really dawned on me that melanoma could kill me until a nurse practitioner said, “Tumors in your lung used to be a death sentence.” That caught my attention. Later, another doctor told me to start considering how I was spending my time in life. I started waking up from dreams where I died. SO grateful that they were just dreams… But were they?

I am one of the lucky ones. The immunotherapy is saving my life. After two years of treatment—which involves infusions every 21 days—the tumors in my lung are shrinking. I am so grateful to Aim at Melanoma and the Melanoma Research Foundation for funding research to help eradicate this deadly disease. I am feeling so much better and have been able to keep a busy work schedule covering more that 80 games a year for ESPN. It hasn’t been easy working days after surgery with drains still stitched into my side or being bald on TV.

I had a wig named “Wanda” to wear on camera but had to get rid of her due to itching and being too hot. I went to a Texas football practice bald thinking I wouldn’t see too many people there. Then the World’s Sexiest Man sauntered into practice. I have only one picture of me with Matthew McConaughey and I look like Mr. Magoo.

Throughout all of this, I have had so much love and support from the teams, coaches, athletes and their families. The head coach of the University of Alabama, Nick Saban and his wife Terri sent me a box of specialty apples to keep the doctor away. WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart designed shoes for me and wore them during a Seattle Storm game to Stomp Out Cancer. My son, McKylin has been a huge help and support. Everyone has helped me stay positive.

As I keep fighting, there have been some crazy moments that, even in the fight of my life I have thought, “Oh, I need to get a little sun. I need to get a base tan.” I am shocked at how conditioned I am—we are—to keep thinking a tan is beautiful. What I know now is that tan can kill.

I’m changing everything about the way I work in the sun. I researched clothing to help protect me while I cover games and found Coolibar. Since we’ve connected, they’ve helped me put together cute, sun-safe outfits.

My takeaway for everyone reading this…

Melanoma is the leading cause of cancer death in young women ages 25-30 and the second leading in women ages 30-35. Be protective of your skin, get screened and be persistent. “It’s probably nothing” nearly killed me. PLEASE… When in doubt, check it out.

Thanks to all I’ve been through, I am a better person and am living my best life.

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