Happy Birthday, Spiderman

Great fortunes in my treatment for stage IV metastatic melanoma

By Ken Billett

Seated in a waiting area just outside the Radiology department, a man gently strums his acoustic guitar. While it’s not unusual to hear a live music performance in the Center’s main lobby, to me it appears this guy—who may be a patient—brought his own instrument.

I make my way upstairs to the second floor Phlebotomy Lab. Dominating the atrium is a huge stainless-steel sculpture, which slowly rotates—or, at least, appears to—reflecting filtered light throughout the day. At 8:30 am on Thursday, May 20th, the West Cancer Center is already hopping.

Inside the lab, a tech puts an IV in my arm and draws three or four vials of blood for my lab work. Phlebotomy, by the way, is a medical term for taking blood. I rarely watch the process—still too squeamish—so I never know how many vials are filled. The vials travel back into the bowels of the clinic to be tested, evaluated, and whatever else they do with them. With an IV needle inserted into a vein in my left arm, I move on to the next scheduled stop: the third-floor Infusion wing.

Cancer treatment is as much about routines and rituals—especially schedules—as it is about the business of medicine. Everything works in tandem. Every process has a purpose. Doctors can’t diagnosis a condition until they have all the data in front of them. Even then, nothing is ever guaranteed.

That, unfortunately, is the reality of my world.

Following lab work, my ritual, which began last year with a new treatment regimen, is to grab a Dasani, a PowerAde, and a Coke Zero from the vending machine. Hydration is key during an infusion (the Coke Z, however, is just for an extra boost of caffeine).

Last summer, in the midst of the pandemic, Vicki and I—and our family—had to deal with a change in my situation.

My situation being a euphemism for the cancer had spread.

I walk upstairs to the third floor. The guitar guy is still strumming—I have yet to recognize any tunes he plays—while the clinic buzzes with the sounds of humanity and medicine.

I’m 59 today, and while I’d much rather be in bed sleeping, or sitting on our back patio sipping coffee while playing on my phone, I’ll take the reality that comes with being able to celebrate another birthday. I subscribe to the Peter Parker principle. According to the comic book hero’s Uncle Ben: With great power comes great responsibility.

Look, I’m no superhero. Heck, I don’t even consider myself brave, not even after my run-in, twenty-seven years ago, with an armed man in my backyard (see Birthday Week, May Seventeenth).

So, I’m not brave and I have no superpowers, but, for now, I do have good fortune. Eight years after being diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, a stage IV cancer, I’m still alive and still battling the ultimate villain of my personal Spider-Verse.

I use my good fortune to help others whom, like me, have been saddled with this dreadful diagnosis. An advocate for skin cancer prevention and melanoma research, I volunteer with non-profit organizations by fundraising, lending my voice through personal testimonials and op-ed columns, mentoring other late-stage melanoma patients, engaging congressional staffers on the merits of upcoming appropriation bills (to fund more research), and, finally, by analyzing research proposals as a patient member of scientific review panels.

In my own words? With good fortune comes greater responsibility.

Sharing my journey story is both cathartic and purposeful. Those of us who are still in this fight remember all those who were less fortunate. Our grief and frustration are channeled into meaningful causes and activities. Ultimately, we want to change current behaviors, raise awareness, and stem the tide of suffering and pain.

Periodically, I’ll receive a private message on my blog or on my Facebook writer’s page. People—many of them patients just like me—who simply want to connect, and to let me know they take comfort in my words. People, who, as a result of reaching out, remind me that we’re all part of something bigger; much bigger than ourselves.

That’s when I feel like a superhero. That’s what greater responsibility means.

Following the morning’s immunotherapy infusion, I’m back home, sitting on the patio, enjoying a nice May afternoon. Our son, Zach, will soon pull his car onto the driveway after a long drive from Atlanta. Alisa, Vicki’s sister, will stop by with a gift, and, most likely, other goodies. She does a good job of spoiling us.

On days like today, it’s nice to be spoiled.

We’ll order dinner from Memphis Pizza Café. Eventually, I’ll open presents and then we’ll have cake. Not just any kind of birthday cake…a homemade carrot cake. My daughter, Emily, was this year’s chef, using Vicki’s recipe (borrowed from a coworker).

The cake looks delicious. I may not want to share it.

Spiderman has a major sweet tooth.

Right now, I’m in Peter Parker mode: living a normal life, enjoying my birthday, even more importantly, enjoying my family and all that they mean to me.

Tomorrow, however, the red and blue tights go back on.

With good fortune comes greater responsibility.

Writer’s Note: I believe many adults—at some point in their lives—treat birthdays as a time of reflection and, perhaps, revitalization. At 59 and given my health challenges, my birthday is both a milestone and a celebration of triumph. I’ve written about three distinct events from my “birthday week.” Events that may resonate with many of you.

Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively.

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