Grateful patients spread awareness and advance research for melanoma
May marks Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness Month, an opportunity for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute patients like John Morgan, Michael Blitzer, and Dawn Neher, who are all being treated for melanoma, to reflect on their journeys, spread awareness that may help a future patient with early detection, and continue to garner support for critical research funds to advance melanoma and skin cancer detection and treatment. These are their stories.
John Morgan has witnessed the rapid acceleration of new technologies, treatment options, and increased priority for early detection in melanoma since he was initially diagnosed at 35, in 1989. He had a raised mole on his chest, with dark rough edges, that he had been overlooking for quite some time because it wasn’t painful or bothering him. A friend, whose father was in the medical field, suggested that he schedule an appointment to get the mole looked at—a push John is extremely grateful for, as it turns out the melanoma had already penetrated all but the last layer of his skin. Since then, John has experienced seven additional melanoma diagnoses and now has regular check-ins with Patrick Ott, MD, PhD, at Dana-Farber, as well as visits to his dermatologist quarterly to stay proactive.
John’s latest melanoma appeared as a bump on the side of his face, with no mole or discoloration. These experiences have taught him to flag any new bumps or growths to his care team, and to advocate for himself when he sees new or suspicious growths. After completing his most recent round of treatment, John agreed to participate in a new melanoma trial in which Dr. Ott’s team is aiming to teach the immune system to detect and kill melanoma cells on its own. “I didn’t have to participate in the trial, but it’s for science and could help someone avoid the journey I’ve been on with my entire family since 1989,” John says. “Thirteen visits to Dana-Farber from Rhode Island for this trial are well worth it if it means preventing another melanoma or helping another family avoid melanoma altogether in the future.”
John recently made a donation to Dana-Farber to establish the Morgan Family Fund for Melanoma Research, which is overseen by Dr. Ott. “I’m amazed at Dr. Ott’s abilities. He is making great progress with his research and I’m more than happy to make this gift to help him continue to advance,” John shares. “Defying cancer speaks to what Dr. Ott and many doctors at Dana-Farber are doing each and every day. I’m relieved that there are now people being diagnosed with cancer who know that they will be fine because there are cures for their disease. This is why I remain positive.”
Michael Blitzer was diagnosed with stage IIIC melanoma in 2019, after a tennis ball sized lump appeared under his armpit. He was stunned to learn that the origin of this cancer could not be traced and that he may only have five years to live. He credits Elizabeth Buchbinder, MD, Cecilia Larocca, MD, and Charles Yoon, MD, PhD, FACS, for extending his outlook from five to 10 years and giving him more time to enjoy his favorite pastime—sailing—after a successful lymph node removal, participation in an immunotherapy treatment protocol, and frequent visits for preventative screenings. To thank his care team and help save more lives, Michael recently made a generous gift to support Dr. Buchbinder’s work in Dana-Farber’s Melanoma Treatment Center. “Many people have the misconception that there’s really not much they can do to help cure cancers,” Blitzen says. “We need to create more awareness that giving, no matter how much you can offer, is directly equating to the number of lives saved at Dana-Farber and beyond.”
When asked if he had any advice for the Dana-Farber community during melanoma and skin cancer awareness month, Michael shared his focus on the importance of establishing a relationship with a dermatologist that you know and trust. “Create a relationship, learn how to look out for skin abnormalities, and keep the ABCDE’s of melanoma top of mind so you can detect any changes early,” he shares. He praises the accessibility of his Dana-Farber care team and having technology that allows him to send photos of any abnormalities to his team to review quickly without waiting for his next scheduled appointment. “Don’t waste a moment if you see a sign,” he says. “You have a support system within the Dana-Farber and it’s important to lean on them so you can get in to see someone as quickly as possible.”
Dawn Neher was diagnosed at 64 with a very rare form of cancer called ocular melanoma. Her symptoms originated as blurred vision in one eye, which she assumed was a sign of getting older, until a part of her eye turned completely black, and she realized it was more serious. Dawn considers herself extremely lucky that her care team was able to perform radiation plaque therapy to eradicate the tumor quickly and is amazed that they were able to save some of her eyesight. Though treatment is behind her, there is a high chance of her cancer recurring, so she is focused on spreading awareness and raising money for research into this rare disease.
Her biggest piece of advice for the Dana-Farber and Jimmy Fund community is to schedule an annual eye exam. “When I share my story there are so many people that are shocked to learn that melanoma can originate in your eye,” she shares. “Seeing an ophthalmologist annually can establish a baseline and help shine a light on abnormalities earlier in the process, which is so important. Don’t make excuses and don’t wait!”
Dawn recently made a gift to support research led by her Dana-Farber doctor, Rizwan Haq, MD, PhD. She wants to ensure her family, friends, and network understand that there are currently no cures for rare cancers, such as her ocular melanoma, but that can change. “We can make a difference—no matter what you give. Funding for an extra research assistant or new trial could unlock a breakthrough or new opportunity that leads to a cure,” Dawn says. “Defying cancer has to be done through research. Cancer continues to show up in multiple forms, in patients of all ages and backgrounds. Dana-Farber is finding solutions so patients can live longer and hopefully someday be cured.”
“My cancer doesn’t have a cure right now,” she continues. “But others do and that gives me hope. My goal is to see the cancer rate decreasing and cures being found, no matter what type of cancer it is. The Dana-Farber community is like a family who is constantly supporting one another and working together toward the common goal of beating cancer. I’m confident that through collaboration and research, Dana-Farber will be the place to find cures for even the smallest and rarest of diseases.”
Support melanoma patients like Michael, John, and Dawn by joining The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign and how you can get involved at DefyCancer.org.