Featured Survivor Story:
by Mara Klecker
Jim Zeoli had never spent much time thinking about melanoma before his own diagnosis at the end of 2017. But he spent a lot of time thinking about cancer that year. Just 11 months before doctors told him the spot on his arm was Stage III melanoma, he and his wife found out she had sarcoma in her upper back.
“That was just the beginning of our cancer story,” Zeoli said. “We’ve had three bouts with it now – it’s intense, but there’s a certain strength in it, too. We’ve always known we were in it together.”
Christine underwent surgery and radiation, which proved successful; she’s been cancer free since 2017. After her first few appointments, she and Jim came up with a system: Christine would listen to the doctor while Jim would take detailed notes. They used the same system but just reversed the roles when Jim began his appointments. The couple saw the same surgical oncologist, who said he’d never treated a husband and wife before.
Jim was then referred to a melanoma oncologist, who recommended immunotherapy. After several months of the treatment, Jim developed neuropathy in his mouth and his doctors recommended that he stop immunotherapy and continue regular follow-up appointments and scans.
Five years later, just after Jim had graduated to six-month follow-ups, he went back to the doctor because of a suspicious spot on his left forearm.
“Given that I’d just moved to checkups every six months, I had felt like ‘This is probably gone.’ Christine was doing well and I was doing well and I thought we were done,” Jim said. The spot turned out to be melanoma again, this time Stage II. Still, Jim said he still felt a sense of confidence and hope.
“I thought ‘We’ve been through this before and we can do it again,’” he said. “We knew the drill and we knew that life continues on after a diagnosis.”
Jim had surgery to remove the melanoma and one lymph node and on the recommendation of his oncologist opted not to try immunotherapy again. He stays committed to keeping his follow-up appointments and scans, even though he gets quite claustrophobic in the MRI machine.
That’s one piece of advice he gives anyone facing melanoma: Keep all of your appointments. “Don’t skip them, don’t put them off; they are what helps you stay ahead of anything and if you stay ahead of it, you have the best opportunity to do something about a recurrence.” Jim also advises patients to have a friend or family member take notes during appointments and recommends keeping a journal to note any side effects from treatments. He also continues a practice of taking frequent photos of the spots on his skin to monitor any changes.
While recurrence is a possibility, Jim says he doesn’t want to live in fear. Instead, he chooses to focus on what he can control.
“You can’t ruin today or tomorrow worrying about something you can’t do anything about,” he said. “Make today as good as it can be because you’re here and you can go be with people and go do things you enjoy.”
Jim said his Catholic faith and the support of friends and family, including his five grown children, helped him and Christine stay positive as they faced the three rounds of cancer. He rarely went to appointments alone – if Christine wasn’t there, one of his children, coworkers or friends usually was.
It’s important that cancer patients stay open to accepting that help and care from others, Jim said.
“Don’t block people out who want to support you,” he said. “Try not to withdraw into the cancer and let it take over everything about your life.”
In doing so, it’s also important to stay transparent with loved ones, Jim said. As a husband and a father, he said it was important to be strong while also staying honest and letting himself be vulnerable.
Even while getting treatment, Jim said he made a point to look around and notice the love and kindness in the room.
“There are the nurses and the assistants, the volunteers and the person who comes around with the snack cart. All of those people are amazing,” he said. “When you see the world in that light – noticing the good stuff even amid the bad – that’s when you can see what life is all about.”