By Alicia Rowell, Vice President
In 2008, Jeff Berg got news no one wants to hear. He was concerned about night sweats and a lump under his arm and talked to three different doctors to find out what could be wrong. One response was “don’t worry about it,” and another was a misdiagnosis. Finally, with a third doctor, he was given a biopsy and scan.
The diagnosis was melanoma, Stage IV. “The cancer had spread to my axillary lymph node and my brain,” he said. He had a single brain tumor on his left side above his ear.
Today, even with all of the new immunotherapies and targeted therapies, melanoma brain metastasis has a low survival rate, but in 2008 it was even lower. It was—and is—a very hard diagnosis to receive. For Jeff, it was even more difficult because he was single and living alone, far away from most of his family, who lived in Ohio.
“I was single at the time and I really had nobody. I wasn’t involved with anyone because I was working so much,” he said.
At the time, he owned a cannabis dispensary. He worked long hours and was his own boss. He enjoyed it. But small-business ownership was incompatible with the brain surgery and subsequent lengthy chemotherapy treatment he’d undergo—there was no one to run the business for the months he would be gone. And in reality, the survival rate for brain metastases was so low, there was the distinct possibility that he would not be coming back. Forced by his medical situation to sell, he retired at age 59.
He came through the brain surgery with the tumor successfully removed and began his chemotherapy treatment. After eight months on the chemo, the treatment journey was over, and he was very much still alive.
After his melanoma treatment ended, he met his now long-time girlfriend, Olga. “I got fixed up with a woman—a beautiful, wonderful woman. And we started going out, and then I figured I had to tell her,” he said, referring to his cancer. “You know, you can’t keep that from someone.”
The news about his cancer did not sway Olga. They stayed together.
But his cancer journey was not yet over.
Not long after his chemotherapy ended, he began a fight with early-stage bladder cancer—a cancer he calls a “nuisance cancer” because, he says, it typically doesn’t kill you, but it can recur.
His treatment for bladder cancer was called BCG, an immunotherapy that involved six weekly sessions. After treatment finished, he was cancer-free for two years. Then a second bout with bladder cancer began. He had the same treatment: six weekly sessions of BCG, which again rendered him cancer-free for two years. Then it recurred a third time.
During his third bladder cancer treatment, he felt pain that he hadn’t felt the first two times. The diagnosis this time was PMR—polymyalgia rheumatica—which caused him to react to the BCG. Prednisone is the treatment for PMR, and the good news is that it’s worked like magic for him. He continues to take the steroid today.
Through all of his diagnoses—Stage IV melanoma, three bouts with bladder cancer, and PMR—he’s survived. Even thrived.
So Jeff is now 71, cancer-free, retired, loving Olga, and happy. Repeat: He is a 12-year survivor of melanoma brain metastases. It’s an incredible story! And in most cases, an AIM “Survivor Story” like this would end on that very positive note. But there’s more to Jeff’s story.
Jeff has made a remarkable gift to AIM.
First, some background that is not melanoma-related. Jeff saved and invested over the years. Most of his money is in securities through his IRAs. To top it off, he says, the market has done really well recently. Additionally, he’s paid off his home in the Los Angeles area.
He recently started to think about where to leave his money when he passes away and realized it wasn’t an easy question. “I have no children, no ex-wives, and my siblings are older or unhealthy,” he said. He also notes that Olga and he were financially self-sufficient when they met. So none of these more obvious scenarios fully fit his needs for all that he has to give.
Jeff decided that it is Olga and three non-profit organizations, one of which is AIM at Melanoma, that will be his beneficiaries upon his passing. What an honor for us.
One of the foundations is the Cancer Support Community, a group that started in Los Angeles and supported actress Gilda Radner (the late wife of actor Gene Wilder) through her cancer journey. Jeff took advantage of this network of cancer patients and caregivers that offers everything from yoga to group therapy.
Similarly, Jeff contacted AIM while he was fighting melanoma. He found us online and communicated with our melanoma Nurse on Call, the predecessor to AIM’s current program called Ask an Expert. The program was envisioned just how Jeff used it—melanoma patients have someone available to ask questions related to their diagnosis, treatment, survivorship, and more.
For Jeff, what he felt from both CSC and AIM was support. He explained it this way: “Without support…I mean physical support is one thing…but emotional and mental support is a whole other ballgame. And when you go like I did from being in a business when you’re interacting with 50 people a day and then…you’ve got no one…it’s tough.”
We are so glad AIM was there when you needed us, Jeff. And thank you for this gift upon your passing. We are grateful.
If you are interested in the possibility of giving AIM an estate gift, a gift of securities, or a gift through your IRA, please contact Alicia Rowell, Vice President, AIM at Melanoma Foundation.