October 22, 2020
Blake Turner (29) is a born and raised Texan. An outdoor enthusiast, he constantly seeks thrills hunting or relaxing on the golf green. Having played several sports growing up, Blake spent his high school and college days competitively golfing, actively outside 300 days out of the year. “I was that typical 25 year old; I was perfectly fine and healthy,” Blake mentioned. However, Blake’s lifestyle and lack of proper sun protection lead him to one of the scariest diagnoses no healthy young man would ever expect to face.
For as long as he could remember, Blake had a mole on the left side of his neck that never caused him any reason for concern. Over time, he remembers the mole becoming more of a nuisance; his dress shirts would rub on his collar line and caused uncomfortable irritation. Blake gave in and visited a dermatologist for advice, an intuition telling him something was not right. His physician suggested nothing was abnormal with his mole; however, Blake knew there was so much more than the surface exposed. ”It took a lot for me to come here, at least help me get rid of it,” he remembers pleading to his physician. He insisted the specimen be biopsied out of precaution, and a week later, he received a call that his mole was malignant. Blake had been diagnosed with melanoma, one of the most aggressive and severe forms of skin cancer.
Blake was referred to surgical oncologist, Dr. Alexander R. Miller, for surgical treatment to ensure his cancer did not spread. Dr. Miller mentioned how there are two primary types of melanoma: invasive melanoma and melanoma in situ. Invasive melanoma has a quicker vertical growth stage, meaning the tumor invades the dermis at a faster rate; melanoma in situ means the melanoma cells are all contained in the area in which they started to develop and have not grown into deeper layers of the skin. “Blake had invasive melanoma, which has the potential to spread to other locations,” Dr. Miller stated.
A wide local excision was performed on Blake’s neck; this involves cutting out the skin cancer and a small margin of healthy tissue around it. Once the tissue has been removed, the edges of the wound are sutured together. Dr. Miller came back with unfavorable news post-surgery. He explained how the margin identified in his initial biopsy was inaccurate, suggesting the melanoma was far deeper than originally thought. “They said I could take my chances to recover and hope it doesn’t come back, or I can have another surgery to get more tissue removed,” Blake remembers. He chose to endure a second surgery.
“It was uncommon -and a bit scary- that only a few weeks after performing a wide local excision, and checking his lymph nodes with sentinel lymph node mapping, that his cancer came back and we had to operate a second time,” Dr. Miller said.
Before his second surgery, Blake mentioned an alarming bump that had formed near his scar. During surgery, Dr. Miller recognized the lump as an indication of the melanoma returning and was able to remove the cancerous tissue. Blake recovered well; however, a few months later, another lump appeared on his neck, presenting pain and irritation on his lymph nodes. An additional biopsy was performed, which revealed the cancer had returned, this time it had progressed to stage 3 melanoma.
Blake was referred to medical oncologist, Dr. Ronald Drengler for additional care. He was placed on immunotherapy treatment, a combination of medicines to stimulate his immune system to recognize and destroy his cancer cells more effectively. An alternative to chemotherapy, this treatment option is less intrusive to the body and vamps up the immune system. Though Blake faced some complications during immunotherapy, he was cured of melanoma.
Today, Blake is in remission after four years. While he still finds himself hunting and golfing regularly, he now advocates for sun protection and responsibly takes every precaution possible to ensure his cancer does not return. “I’m much more conscious and aware of sunscreen,” Blake mentioned. “I constantly reapply sunscreen and wear a shirt outside. I’m much more aware and vocal to help others I’m around so they can protect themselves.”
Dr. Miller said, “If Blake had been diagnosed at a later time, his melanoma could have been fatal.” He said regularly scheduled dermatology examinations are essential to good skincare, and skin cancer screening exams can often detect skin cancer at a very early stage if performed frequently, especially in people who have a higher risk for skin cancers. People at higher risk include young people with either a family history of skin cancer, a history of extensive sun exposure, a history of a lot of moles, and older adults who have already had skin cancer. Dermatologic exams are recommended for low-risk people to be performed at least once a year, and people at higher risk have exams every 3-6 months depending on their risk level and prior history.