Tim Peterson is an experienced rock-climber, solo hiker and traveller, and has come close to death several times as a child. It’s fair to say he’s faced many dangerous situations in his lifetime.
Despite an adventurous upbringing, Tim claims nothing in his past has come close to the challenges he faced over the last year.
“I’ve always been able to rely on my physical strength and mental toughness to get me out of difficult situations. None of these have prepared me for the challenges of facing melanoma this year.”
Tim, a 45-year-old environmental engineer and lecturer, first noticed an odd spot on his left arm in early 2019.
“The spot was sunset pink and raised. It looked different but I felt too busy to follow it up at the time, so I left it.”
Later in the year, prompted by a change in jobs, father of two Tim had the spot looked at. It was stage 2B nodular melanoma. The spot was surgically removed requiring a depth of 20mm through the first layer of muscle and wide margins leaving a 9cm scar. Tim then started immunotherapy – a type of treatment that stimulates the body’s immune system to fight the cancer.
Early 2020 and a second lump was identified only 4cm from the original site. After an anxious wait for the biopsy and the results, a second surgery followed, revealing another melanoma. Tim likens the surgery to seeing surgeons carve up a roast lamb.
“I went through the whole gamut of emotions at that point. Being scientifically minded, I immediately went into research mode to better understand what a reoccurrence meant. It wasn’t great news.
“There are just so many unknowns with melanoma. Was our last camping holiday the last one we would ever have? Would I be around to see the kids grow up? I wasn’t sure I could plan for the future at that point – or ever again in all honesty. How do you tell your family that?”
Tim kicked himself for a long time about not getting the first spot looked at earlier. As is often the case, life just got in the way and Tim didn’t prioritise his health.
“The irony of it all is that I thought I was too busy for a 10-minute check-up but instead I ended up with an entire year of doctor’s appointments and hospital visits. Continual blood tests, PET scans, MRIs, lumbar punctures … the list goes on. Had I gone to the doctor earlier things would’ve been very different.
Tim has undergone 8 months of immunotherapy (every 3–4 weeks) which requires lengthy periods spent in the chair and assessments to check if the body can handle another cycle. Tim has also suffered quite harsh side effects. Extreme fatigue, aches, loss of physical strength and peripheral neuropathy (intense pain and numbness in his feet) to name a few.
“My sister couldn’t believe the level of fatigue I was experiencing. She was shocked to see so much life get sucked out of me by the treatment. I’m fortunate to have access to such life-saving treatment with top medical care but there’s certainly nothing straight forward about it – and it’s particularly challenging knowing there’s no guarantee it will work.”
Growing up, Tim spent a lot of time outdoors. Sunburn was a common side effect of family beach holidays, and rock climbing abroad as a young adult saw him spend entire days out in the sun. As an adult, Tim’s love of outdoor activity continued with hikes, climbing and cycling to work for the best part of a decade.
“I used to apply sunscreen early in the day but would usually forget to reapply as the day wore on. Sun protection wasn’t a big focus for me. I attempted it but didn’t pay close attention.
“One of the profound failures of my life is that I didn’t take better care of myself. I’m an educated person with good prior knowledge of the risks and yet I still didn’t heed the warnings. Even as an adult.”
Around 95% of skin cancers are caused by UV exposure. However nodular melanoma is a relatively rare form of skin cancer and is not always linked to sun exposure – though UV exposure is a risk factor.
“Although my type of melanoma may not be solely due to UV exposure – it certainly won’t have helped. And regardless of what triggered it, the trauma of melanoma and colossal upheaval of life is the same.”
Tim now faces six-monthly PET scans and three-monthly physical check-ups for the foreseeable future. But it’s the anxiety associated with the unknown that plays on his mind the most.
“It’s been really hard to reconcile this past year and the knowledge that you’re never really cured from melanoma. You simply don’t know if there are any rogue cells in your body that will cause it to come back. It feels a bit like a life sentence.”
As is often the case with a cancer diagnosis, Tim had to contend with the harsh realities of how other people in his life dealt with his disease.
“I’ve been gob smacked by the widespread misunderstandings when it comes to skin cancer. A lot of people seem to think that a melanoma can just be cut out. Often there’s nothing simple about treatment for melanoma – the impact on your life can be profound. It was for me.
One of Tim’s biggest realisations through this experience is that melanoma doesn’t just affect the person with the diagnosis.
“I’ve seen the toll this past year has taken on my wife and family and it’s been hard to watch.
“As partners and dads, we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to keep ourselves safe and healthy for those close to us. I may have had rubbish genes to begin with but in most cases skin cancer can be easily prevented with sun protection – we just need to step up and do it.”
Each year twice as many men die from melanoma than women – but the risk of skin cancer can be significantly reduced by limiting UV exposure at any age. SunSmart recommends protecting your skin in five ways when the UV is 3 and above. Slip on protective clothing, Slop on SPF30 (or higher) broad-spectrum, water resistant sunscreen, Slap on a broad-brim hat, Seek shade and Slide on sunglasses. Whether you’re 6, 16 or 60 years old, it’s never too late to protect your skin and reduce the risk.
Learn how to protect yourself and your family at www.sunsmart.com.au/same-goes-for-you