Andrew F. “Rocky” Russell

08/13/1957 — 09/22/2008

“Everyday is a gift….”

This was Rocky’s motto, and he lived it to the fullest.

I met Rocky in April of 1991. I was drawn to his contagious smile and passion for life. Rocky loved life more than anyone I have ever known. That summer, 1991, we were at the beach, and I noticed a strange mole on his back. I asked him if he knew about it, and he said he knew something was back there, but couldn’t see it. The next week he went to the dermatologist, had it removed, and learned it was Melanoma. Soon after, he had surgery to take out more tissue and test the borders. The good news was that it was not deep, measuring only a 1 on the Clark’s Scale. So, he was told to go on with his life, wear sunscreen, and have yearly check-ups, and he did just that.

7 years later, in the fall of 1998, Rocky noticed a lump in his groin, which he thought was a hernia from his sports’ activities. He was an amazing athlete, playing football at Colorado College, and participating in just about every sport there was. Physical fitness remained an important part of his life, lifting weights, cycling, and playing basketball.

Unfortunately,his doctor confirmed that it was not a hernia, but an enlarged lymph node. Rocky asked if it could have anything to do with a melanoma he had removed from his back years earlier, and he said “something in the doctor’s eyes” told him his cancer had returned. Rocky’s upbeat attitude never faltered. He had 2 surgeries to remove lymph nodes, then, went on high dose Interferon for an entire year, giving himself injections 3 days a week. He had many bizarre side effects, but persevered, and made it thru that year, without a single complaint. Complaining was not Rocky’s style.

He went on with his life, working, working out, and focusing on healing, rather than Melanoma. Scans revealed no cancer anywhere else in his body.

Rocky and I celebrated by getting married that summer, 1999. Life went on…..Rocky had yearly scans, and we were blessed, each time, to learn there was no Melanoma.

In January of 2007, 10 years after his last occurrence, Rocky noticed a very tiny nodule in his belly. He said his cancer was back. I said it couldn’t be. The doctors even had a hard time finding it; they were amazed that he had found such a tiny lump. Surgery confirmed Melanoma, and Rocky was ready to fight, again. No complaints, ever. His PET scan and CT scans were clean, but his oncologist, who he had seen for 10 years, recommended that he go to MD Anderston to see the experts. So we did. That journey began March, 2007. Rocky had surgery to remove more lymph nodes in his abdomen, and, fortunately, all were clean. No evidence of cancer anywhere else in his body. We met the remarkable Wen-Jen Hwu, and began our journey with her. She became Rocky’s oncologist, and he loved her, always commenting on her wonderful smile. 3 months later, in July 2007, scans revealed a couple of very small, distant lymph nodes, and biopsy confirmed Melanoma. Rocky tried several rou nds of oral chemotherapy, Temodar and Nexovar, but no response. So, Dr. Hwu recommended 2 rounds of Biochemotherapy. Rocky was so strong going into it, that it really didn’t affect him like most. He continued to work and work out in between treatments. Scans revealed, again, no response, which told us his tumors were resistant. So, January of 2008, Rocky began a clinical trial using the drug Ipilimumab. He did 4 rounds of that, and in early March, we received the best report ever. All tumors were shrinking, and we were elated. He would be off treatment until May, when he would begin maintenance. A week later, I noticed some yellowing around Rocky’s eyes.

Two days later, he was taken to the emergency room by ambulance. The drug he was taking for Melanoma triggered a severe autoimmune response, causing his own immune system to attack his liver. As a result, he went into acute liver failure. The doctors were not sure he would pull through, but we knew he would. After 2 weeks in ICU, intubated and sedated, Rocky’s body fought the drug-induced hepatitis, and he pulled through, again. He spent 2 more weeks in the hospital before he was able to come home. He had lost 30 pounds, and had to regain his strength to walk. He persevered, and bounced back faster than expected. Unfortunately, the high dose steroids he was on for the hepatitis, neutralized the effects of the medicine that had worked on his Melanoma, and his tumors began to grow, again. He experienced a GI bleed in June, due to the tumor in his duodenum. He underwent the Whipple surgery to remove the tumor. This was a 9 hour procedure. Again, Rocky’s faith and determination pulled him through this, and he bounced back faster than most. He was back to work, working out, and trying to get on with his life. Unfortunately, CT scans in early August revealed more tumors. This time in his liver, lungs, and right leg. I was devastated. He was ready to fight, again. He did one round of high dose chemotherapy. He continued to fight as hard as he could! Giving up was never an option for Rocky. Unfortunately, the chemo did not work, and Rocky lost his battle on September 22, 2008.

Rocky fought long and hard, with such incredible dignity. He was a “gift” to me, his family and to everyone who knew him. He was passionate about life, and especially the people in his life. He was the perfect example of hope overcoming adversity. His commitment to beat his cancer was relentless. Rocky loved giving of himself. He was involved in CanCare, a faith based organization, whose mission is to improve the quality of life for families and patients with cancer. Like anything else in Rocky’s life, he poured his heart and soul into CanCare, and helped many families and patients fighting this dreadful disease. His commitment remains an inspiration to many. The world has lost an incredible man, but GOD has picked up a remarkable teammate.

We love you Rocky, and will never, ever, forget you, and know you are in the arms of your Heavenly Father, who you loved so much.

I can’t wait to see you again. You will always be the love of my life.


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