Dan's story: A father's experience with melanoma

My last normal Father's Day was in June 2000.

At that point, I was 33 years old and my wife Sara and I had been blessed with three beautiful children. Our oldest son Everett was 5, our daughter Olivia was 3, and our newest arrival, Isabella, was only 2.

Three years earlier Sara and I had moved into a large and run down old Victorian house in Stoughton, Wis., and were neck deep in some major remodeling projects. About that time we had gutted the upstairs and had setup family sleeping quarters in the downstairs living room while we worked on the house nights and weekends. All in all life was going great — we were young and invincible and ready for anything.

Later that year, however, things started to go wrong for us.

In August, my cousin and good friend was killed in an ATV accident. In January 2001, Sara's mother was hospitalized with an illness that became a life-threatening staph infection that resulted in a slow and painful recovery throughout the spring.

The good news however was that Sara was expecting our fourth child. In March 2001, our youngest son Jake was born and it looked like maybe things were back on track.

A doctor's intuition that saved his life

I took off work for a week after Jake was born and as part of my to-do list went to see my dermatologist, about a mole on my back that Sara had been after me for some time to have checked. It was immediately obvious that he did not like the mole, as he decided to remove it right there in the office.

The first lab report came back indicating that the mole was in fact a melanoma but that it did not extend beyond the first layer of skin. It had been caught in time and no follow-up treatment would be required.

Dr. Berg was not comfortable with the results, however, and using an intuition that likely saved my life, insisted on a second lab review. The second review indicated that the melanoma was in fact significantly deeper. With that second lab report, my life for the next year was hijacked by cancer.

The cancer journey begins

I had a sentinel node surgery, which indicated that the melanoma had in fact spread to my lymph nodes. The next step was a much more invasive surgery to remove all of the lymph nodes near the area where the mole was removed.

After the surgery was completed I was fortunate enough to be referred to Mark Albertini, MD, with the UW Carbone Cancer Center. Dr. Albertini started me on a four-week program of intravenous high-dose Interferon.

Interferon is considered an immune therapy and is intended to mobilize the immune system to destroy any remaining melanoma "seeds" that might be lurking elsewhere in the body. A first I thought this sounded like a good deal, as I would be avoiding traditional chemotherapy treatments. I soon learned however that the side effects were just about as bad, the only consolation being that they came without the hair loss.

Getting through the toughest times

So, by Father's Day 2001, I was in the midst of my high-dose treatments and my family and I were going through a very difficult time. It was quite an education in how life can change in a very short period of time.

I remember looking in on the kids at night and wondering how I ever ended up in a situation where these people were so dependent on me and I might not be able to be there for them.

In the end though, it was Sara and the kids who were there for me and got me through my toughest times. Jake was a perfect baby who smiled and slept and grew to be quite popular with our nurses at the UW. Olivia was always there with a joke or a smile to cheer me up and Everett and Bella would get me going to play catch or walk to the park. They all kept me hoping and moving forward.

A slow return to health

I completed the high-dose treatments later that June and by January 2002, had completed the subsequent lower dose self injection treatments. Slowly I began to regain control of my life.

Over time I went from my initial five trips to the UW Carbone Cancer Center per week down to monthly, then down to three-month checkup visits. Finally in March 2006, I had my final five-year checkup and Dr. Albertini shook my hand and gave me a clean bill of health.

Making a difference for melanoma care

While I have not been back as a patient since, I have continued to meet with Dr. Albertini.

As fate would have it, my mother Janis was serving as a board member for a charitable trust based out of Milwaukee at the time of my illness. Over the course of my treatments, she learned of Dr. Albertini's dual role as clinician and researcher.

In 2006, she suggested that we meet with Dr. Albertini to determine if a donation from the trust might help further his research towards a more effective treatment for patients with advanced melanoma. As a result of our meeting the Gretchen and Andrew Dawes Melanoma Research Fund was established and annual donations from the trust have since helped to fund personnel and and equipment costs for Dr. Albertini's lab.

Countless reasons to be grateful

Through the Father's Days to come as I continue to enjoy watching my kids grow, I will remain forever grateful for the expert care I received from the UW Carbone Cancer Center and for all the people who saw me through.