Don’t hesitate when it comes to cancer

Thursday 24 November, 2022
Man looking at the camera in bushland with a child in the distance
Tim and daughter hiking in Mount Buangor State Park (Vic) in March 2022

Tim Peterson is an experienced rock-climber, solo hiker and traveller, and has come close to death several times. 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 recent years. 

“I’ve always been able to rely on my physical strength and mental toughness to get me out of difficult situations in the wild. Even with this experience, treatment for the melanoma and facing my own mortality has been difficult.”

Tim, a 47-year-old environmental engineer and senior lecturer at Monash University says people are still shocked when they hear of his cancer experience.

“I’ve had people say but you’re a bloke in your mid-40s who is fit, that isn’t the picture of cancer, I thought it was people in their 80s who were frail.”

His response to those people, is that the fight for your life starts earlier than you think, and if you see him looking terrible, then it probably would be too late in his battle with melanoma.

Tim 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.” 

It wasn't until later that year that father-of-two Tim had the spot looked at. It was stage 2B nodular melanoma. This would be the first of many surgeries for Tim to remove this spot and nearby lumps from his body.

Some tumours feeling as small as a pea, have required surgeons to remove two or three golf balls of tissue, leaving painful wounds and long recovery times. One of the operations he watched as they took out multiple layers of muscle from his arm.

After the surgery Tim also required immunotherapy – a type of treatment that stimulates the body’s immune system to fight the cancer. But when it came back in 2022, he started a more aggressive form of immunotherapy.

“So many people struggle to think how a little spot on your arm which was between 2–3 millimetres in diameter can spread through your body. But it can, and for it me it spread to inside my heart and throughout my lower torso.”

Tim also suffered quite harsh side effects from the treatment. Hepatitis with uncontrollable shakes, long term fatigue, aches, loss of physical strength and peripheral neuropathy (intense pain and numbness in his feet, legs, hand and arms) to name a few. 

“My sister couldn’t believe the level of fatigue I was experiencing. She was shocked to see so much life be sucked out of me by the treatment. I’m fortunate to have access to such life-saving treatment with top team-based medical care at the Alfred Hospital but there’s certainly nothing straight forward about it – and it’s particularly challenging knowing there’s no guarantee the immunotherapy will work. For many it doesn’t.” 

Tim recalls delaying getting his spot checked because he was busy with a demanding career and young family.

"I wish I realised how much time it takes, for the many medical appointments, various scans, blood tests and being actively involved in my own health. It would have been much easier to get regular check-ups and avoid all of this.” Tim said.

Tim is encouraging all men take control of their health and not to allow misconceptions to stop them getting checked if they notice a change.

“Too many blokes don’t take ownership of their own health, I probably didn’t, it isn’t my GP's responsibility or my family’s. They can contribute but it was my responsibility when things looked weird or changed.”

“It’s been really hard to reconcile over the past years and the knowledge that I will never be cured from melanoma. You simply don’t know if there are any rogue cells in your body that will cause it to come back. This uncertainty will hang over me for however long I have left.” 

Growing up, Tim spent a lot of time outdoors. Sunburn was a common side effect of family beach holidays, and rock climbing around Australia 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. I probably wasn’t the best with sunscreen but I definitely wasn’t the worst, let’s say average.”

“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.” 

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 these past three years have 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. In most cases skin cancer can be easily prevented with sun protection – we just need to step up and do it.” 

Learn how to protect yourself and your family at www.sunsmart.com.au/same-goes-for-you 

Two people climbing a rock face
Tim (top) and friend climbing at Mt Arapiles (Vic) in 2021

 

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