In the fall of 2008, my husband, Terrill W. Gates, went to see a dermatologist for a mole on his back. It had been there ever since I knew him and had never changed, but a week prior he thought he had scratched it (it was where a tag for a t-shirt would sit, so that made sense) and it bled enough that he used a bandaid to cover it. I made him an appointment and so off he went. They biopsied the lesion and told him they’d let him know the results. The next day his doctor called him at work and told him it had come back as melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, and that he needed to go to UCONN to have surgery, which he had a few weeks later. They removed the entire lesion, its borders, and five of the six lymph nodes a dye test had indicated were ‘sentinel nodes’, doctor speak for ‘where it would seed to’ (the sixth was stuck under his collar bone and couldn’t be easily reached, so they left it). And we waited. Huge bandages, drains, medications, staples and stitches that popped and required a second surgery…but the lymph nodes returned negative, and we were sent home with a ‘good luck’. And that was it.
Until January of 2014, when Terrill had had a headache for the entire weekend that nothing helped. He got up for work on Monday morning, and I actually thought he had had a stroke because he was acting distracted, but he passed all the primary stroke tests that I gave him and left for work, telling me he’d call me when he got there. So when he called 45 minutes later I was happy he was safely at work- but he told me he had no idea where he was and couldn’t see out of the corners of his eyes. He used GPS audio to coach him back home, and I called an ambulance. Within hours they would diagnose metastatic melanoma tumors in his brain, and he was admitted to ICU for life saving surgery four days later, once the swelling was under better control with high dose steroids. He had five hours of surgery and they removed two tumors; one the size of a kiwi and the other a small potato. And, Terrill being Terrill, he was home sitting on our couch thirty six hours after surgery.
And that’s when we started whole brain radiation to get rid of additional ‘spots’ on the brain, and chemotherapy for lesions in his lungs, liver, and abdominal cavity. He would endure another round of brain radiation and a second brain tumor removal surgery within eight months, and we lost him ten months after his diagnosis.
Terrill was a college graduate, worked in the medical field as a retinal angiographer, was a First Sergeant in the US Army Reserve, and a husband and dad to three kids, who were 9, 10, and 11 at the time of his death. But he had red hair (when he had hair) and fair skin, and while we may never know if the sun caused his melanoma, it’s a fair guess when you consider the location of the original mole: a place where your shirt rubs sunscreen off easily.
Terrill was 49 years old.
Please use protection and please get your skin checked.