My name is Chris Verzwyvelt. I am a Stage IV melanoma survivor. I was diagnosed in 2007 with a large mole behind my left ear. My dermatologist did a biopsy on it that confirmed it was melanoma. She recommended MD Anderson and pulled some strings to get me there as quick as possible. I went there and had the mole removed as well as several lymph nodes on the left side of my neck. I counted my blessings and thanked God that it was caught early and went about my life. Failing to educate myself enough about this disease almost killed me. I had no idea that skin cancer could go all over your body like it did 4 years later to me.
You have to understand I was 33 years old, 6’2″, and 200 pounds. I was always a big, strong, healthy guy, and I worked as a pipeline surveyor. I never wore sunblock; I always worked outside. In June 2011 I started having nosebleeds. They were minor at first, and I just attributed it to the heat and working out in the Louisiana pollen. They gradually got worse and worse. I started having headaches also. They were like the nosebleeds, minor at first, but after a few weeks I could take three B.C. powders and it was like taking nothing. I had just started working for a new company and did not want to ask my boss to take off work to go to the doctor for a nosebleed. So I just dealt with it until one night I woke up with the worst head pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I couldn’t open my right eye, and it felt weird. I got my wife to take me to the ER. A CT scan confirmed that I had a large mass in my ethmoid and sphenoid sinus cavities, behind and a little below my right eye. I also had a mass that was 6 cm in my right lung. The next day, I started having lumps appear all over my head, my neck, shoulders, and abdomen. Biopsies confirmed that it was all melanoma. It was consuming me and spreading very, very fast in my subcutaneous tissue.
I was finally sent to M.D. Anderson and started biochemo. I was on a morphine pump for pain as well as methadone. At first, they were concerned to give biochemo to me because the sinus tumor was millimeters from my brain, and they didn’t want it to swell up when treatment started. I started treatment, however, because there were really no alternatives for melanoma once it started attacking the body so aggressively. My first round of treatments I stayed at M.D. Anderson for 3 weeks. I remember missing my dogs terribly, and I hated watching my wife cry herself to sleep every night. That was the worst part of it for me. The side effects of the IL-2 really don’t start setting in until your second treatment, however. I swelled up like a balloon and turned red as an apple. All my skin started peeling off, and I looked like I had a bad sunburn. The response was almost immediate. After the first treatment, I did not need the morphine pump anymore, and I could open my eye again. The lights at the hospital hurt my eye though, so I would bring a little lamp from home and put it in the room. I actually got a lot of compliments from the staff on how homey such a simple little thing as a lamp made my hospital room.
I could not eat at all while I was in the hospital. My wife would a lot of times have to go out of the room to eat because just smelling food made me sick to my stomach. Just seeing commercials on TV for Chiles or Taco Bell would make me sick. I always just assumed that people going through cancer treatments were just not hungry. That’s not the case though; I was starving. It’s like I could feel every cell in my body just screaming for some nutrition, but I could not eat.
I would stay at the hospital for a week, then come home for 2-3 weeks, and then back again for another round of treatments. Right around the middle of this process is when the neuropathy started really setting in. I could not feel my feet or even wiggle my toes. I was severely anemic and weak from my bone marrow getting slammed by the IL-2/chemo combination. I was so weak one day that I got up off the couch and immediately passed out and smacked my face on the floor hard and scared my wife to death. She took me to the ER where I got seven stitches in my chin.
This was about the time that the depression really started setting in. Like I said, I was always a big, strong guy, and now all of a sudden I had the body of an old man. I had to get up like three times a night to go to the bathroom. I was so weak, and right about the time I would start to get my appetite back and start to feel a little better, it would be time to go back to M.D. Anderson for another round of biochemo. My wife had to drive all the time because I was on so much medicine and could not feel my feet. Most mornings I would just sit in the living room and cry.
Finally in November of last year, after 5 months of biochemo, I finished my last treatment. The doctors said that taking all six rounds is rare because most people get so sick, or get dementia, or all kinds of other crazy side effects. It had really done a number on me though. I weighed 150 lbs. My hair was all gone; I was so skinny and pale and weak. IL-2 gives you diarrhea while you are taking it, then when you get home and stop taking it, you get constipated. IL-2 also kills the good bacteria in your digestive tract, so even if I could eat something, my bowels would be in pain. I could not walk that well, I could not feel my feet, and I had tinnitus from hearing loss caused by the cancer drugs I was on. The tumor in my sinus had dried up and pulled away from the walls of my sinus cavity. The tumor in my lung was just a spot that was almost nonexistent. And all the subcutaneous tumors I had were long gone.
A brain MRI confirmed that I had a small tumor about the size of a pencil eraser that had metastasized to my right frontal lobe. Biochemo does not treat the brain because it cannot pass the blood brain barrier. It treated everything except my brain. So in February, I had the gamma knife done to me where they give high doses of radiation to a single area of the brain. It’s a very painless procedure, but it takes time for the tumor to go away. My last scan showed it getting smaller and smaller, so it was effective. I also had endoscopic surgery to remove the dead tumor in my sinus. I now basically have a hole behind my right eye where that tumor destroyed nerves and bones and tissue. It always throbs and hurts. My leg bones still ache and have shooting pains. I still have neuropathy, but it is improving and I am getting stronger every day. The biggest challenge for me was and still is depression. I think that anyone young having to go through all this would feel the same way.
Last year at this time they were telling me to make out a will while I was still alive. I could see it in my family’s eyes whenever they visited me that they were preparing themselves for my dying. I was in a very dire situation with a very hopeless diagnosis. But I am still alive. Despite all the bad things that the biochemo did and is still doing to my body, it healed me of this horrible disease that almost killed me. I thank God for my family and my wife, who I could have never gotten better without. The will to live is more important than any medicine that the doctor can ever give you. Remember that fellow melanoma warriors. This disease may try to take your body, but it can never take your spirit. No matter what the doctors say, no matter what your family or friends say, never lose heart. I love you all. God Bless.