Sunday Morning Opera: Prayers for Dmitri Hvorostovsky


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Because of my melanoma, there are three people who did not die of it. Melanoma is a horrible death, the final stage being brain cancer.  It is one of the most lethal cancers there is, and the most easily prevented and stopped.  A diagnosis of cancer is one of the worst things a person can go through, I think.  Having been there, and done that, I have an idea what our favorite baritone is going through, or at least know enough to have a tremendous amount of empathy for him.  I’ve been there and done that.  This is my story.  I think it’s every person’s story.

Before I get started, I need to state, up front, that the greatest single thing that ever happened to me was being diagnosed with melanoma. At the time, in 1997, it wasn’t.  In fact, it was the end of the world as I knew it.  I was angry with the world, myself, and with God for betraying me.  If it hadn’t come less than a decade after having to come to grips with the abuse I endured as a child, I don’t know if I would have reacted the way that I did.  Let’s just be honest here and say that I made a total and complete fool out of myself.  I was hysterical.  At the time, all I knew about melanoma was that it was a death sentence. It still is, if you don’t catch it early.  Praise the Lord, I caught mine when it was in an insitu stage.  My GP called, telling me that that path tests were in, and it was melanoma.  That’s all I heard.  I began crying, rather hysterical.  It was cancer.  I wasn’t supposed to get cancer.  I didn’t smoke.  I didn’t do that much drinking.  I did not indulge in behaviors which gave a person cancer – right?  Well… over the years there were repeated sunburns.  There was this one sunburn in particular, in the summer of 1964, when I was just a little kid.  We were in Minnesota.  It was so bad I had scars from it.

Melanoma is a funny thing.  You have 6 months before it truly begins to spread.  If you are lucky, the way I was, you catch it in that 6 month’s period, do the proper excision, have two different path reports, a wide excision, and go on about your life. If you get it wrong, like Diana Ashby, the wife of former Shuttle pilot, astronaut Jeff Ashby did, you end up dead.  Her mistake was trusting her family physician, who never bothered with a professional path report.  He told her she had an early stage melanoma, and not to worry.  She was mid-stage 3.  A few years later she was dead.  Not long after I was diagnosed, and began to educate myself, Jeff called, talked for ages.  He literally put the fear of God in me.  Not only did I have that wide excision, but two path reports on both excisions, and a third one by a reputable oncologist.

After the hysteria was over, my GP told me I had the best possible version of one of the deadliest cancers there is.  With melanoma, there is going to be a second primary.  I think we may have already removed it.  I am currently watching the growth of a small nevis 2 inches above my right wrist.  It’s okay now but, that second sense tells me it will become a melanoma.  The object is for me to be able to afford to have it removed, with the proper path report, before it goes bad.  The whole process is less than a thousand bucks, but these days, that’s a heck of a lot of money.

That initial diagnosis of cancer is the most horrifying thing.  It is literally life-shattering and life changing.  I’ve come to the conclusion, and did ages ago, that everyone should be required to go through it. You are required to face, in no uncertain terms, the most grim and horrifying end imaginable.  You think of everything bad.  You resent God.  You resent your life.  You resent everything around you. You watch life going, with people laughing and enjoying themselves, and wondering what gives them that right.  In your mind, the world is out of control, while it should be revolving around you.

Your life, your steady, perfect life is shattered.  It’s over.  The person you were the day before the diagnosis will never return.  You are suddenly a different person. You even swear people don’t look at you the same way.  All you can think about is the worst case scenario, and how it will ruin your life.  Suddenly it’s your life – not the life of someone else – but yours.  Anyone who says they aren’t thinking of this, aren’t envisioning the very worst, is lying.

When I went to my single oncologist appointment, I was furious.  I had an insitu.  I did not need to go to an oncologist, but I was basically forced to do it.  When I was going through the paper-work, my blood-pressure went sky high.  I had an insitu.  By that time I knew what it was.  The thought of facing paperwork requiring end of life directives, next of kin, basically freaked me.  I’ve since learned, dealing with my parents, that a person should not be required to do that sort of paperwork during a moment of intense emotional crises.  If you sign the wrong thing, or check the wrong box, they have permission to stand by, and just let you die.  I’m of the ilk if you’re a vegetable, pull the damn plug.  But, if life is viable, fight for it.  Had one of those boxes been checked, in 2005, my mother would have been allowed to die.

You sign the wrong form and your life is no longer your own.  The problem with a crises diagnosis is you are forced to take the advice of a physician, who may or may not have your best interest at heart.  When you are dealing with a chronic medical problem, you must educate yourself to the point where you know almost as much as the attending.  I know this is what I did with melanoma.  This is what Jeff Ashby told me to do. I had to take control of my own life, my own medical treatment, and make my own decisions.  It was my life.

I very quickly adopted melanoma as my crusade.  I will go up to people and tell them if they do not do something about a specific nevis, they will die.  I did this to a young woman in a store in Georgia.  She became hysterical.  Her supervisor was furious with me.  About six weeks later, when my mother was in the same store, she asked her to thank me.  Her melanoma was diagnosed as late stage 2.  Her derm told her if she had not had it removed when she did, it was going to be a disaster for her.  I’ve done this to two other people

Cancer changes people, I think.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Just the fear of it changed me.  I’ve learned to look beyond statistics.  I am well aware that, for me, melanoma is a ticking time-bomb.  I am also well aware that there is basically a cure for it. All I wanted was to make it until there was, and there is.  I know where to go and look.  Not all cancer hospitals are created equal.  One learns to look for statistics like ‘cures’ instead of ‘treated’.  You look at the success rate.  It is a battle.

My aunt was diagnosed with a rare stem cell cancer in 1998.  She was given a prognosis of 6 months to a year.  The clinical trials have nearly ruined her vision.  She has an amazing quality of life, being told that her cancer will probably not be what kills her.  A year ago I lost a very dear friend to lung cancer.  He was pronounced cancer free – by a VA associated oncologist. Another friend who was diagnosed at the same time is cancer free and back at work, managing heavy equipment in wildfires.

There are some cancers I don’t think you touch.  My father’s former business partner was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer 8 years ago.  He’s having problems rheumatoid arthritis.  The old wives tale is you don’t cut into cancer because it spreads.  I happen to think it is true.  Things which were death sentences just a few years ago no longer are.

I’m writing all of this because I would like to get the legion of who support Dmitri Hvorostovsky to understand what he may be going through.  I was sickened when I read on his FB page that his voice was not effected.  Who gives a rip?  Right now, the voice is the least of the problem.  I’ve read all the well-wishers who can only discuss his voice and how they want to hear him, again. When he recovers, and he will, he may decide to change the direction his entire life.  I just think compassion and understanding is needed.  Don’t put pressure on the man.  He needs our prayers and our love.

Also, remember, we really don’t have any right to know what is going on in his life.  He has a right to privacy. I can’t even imagine the thoughts, the nightmares, and the trauma of having to deal with diagnosis, treatments, and the often horrific side-effects of those treatments. Right now, his world has been shattered.  I’ve been there.  I was lucky.  Let’s pray that he is, too.

Do you know the warning signs of melanoma?

NOTE:  After writing this, I’ve just learned that in ABQ, they are working on a new non-chemo combination which is having an amazing success rate with late stage 4 metastatic lesions.  Something like 25% of the time, they disappear, entirely.  They are now going for FDA approval.  This will be the biggest breakthrough in melanoma treatment in a quarter century.  The reason I bring this up, is two-fold.  It means that I don’t need to die from melanoma, if I catch it, in a reasonable stage.  Because of melanoma and certain brain cancers and tumors, this could be a big fat hairy deal for our favorite baritone – a very big fat hairy deal!