By Roberta King, Vice President of PR & Marketing at Grand Rapids Community Foundation
I first saw the scar 24 years ago. It was at least seven inches long, vertical but angled, across Phil’s lower chest. It looked like he’d had an amateur open-heart surgery.
“What the hell? I thought you had skin cancer.”
“I know, it’s huge, isn’t it? I guess they had to go deep and long to get it all. It’s Melanoma,” he said.
Back then skin cancer wasn’t much on anyone’s radar screen—maybe for people in sunny states, but here in Michigan, not so much. Phil’s spot was detected and removed long before the Internet, so googling Melanoma didn’t happen.
Phil healed up and we didn’t talk about his Melanoma much after that. He was good about using sunscreen and wearing a hat, he always carried both with him. We spent a fair amount of time outside, cycling, kayaking and sitting on the deck drinking beer and shooting the breeze. Years of our friendship piled up—there was no one, outside of my husband, who was more a part of my life than my best friend, Phil.
Just before Thanksgiving 2016, Phil’s Melanoma came back. He was working at the Muskegon Museum of Art when he fell to floor, it appeared he was having a seizure. An ambulance took him to the hospital. He called me later that evening.
“I don’t think I’ll make Thanksgiving happy hour,” he said. “I’m in the hospital. They found some spots on my brain.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the chest.
“Where from? What …?”
“It’s probably from the Melanoma.”
“That thing on your chest from way back when?”
“Yes. That’s what it looks like.”
How could it be that something more than 24 years in the past could reappear as brain cancer?
I went to visit Phil in the hospital, he was alone and we had time to talk.
“You’ll fight this won’t you? Like, get whatever cancer treatments you can, right?”
I stared and willed him to say yes.
“You’re too young to let this take you. There’s just too much going on in your life, we’re having too much fun.”
“What would you do?” he asked.
“Well, if the treatment wasn’t too horrible, I’d go full on to get better.”
Phil did that. He went to Lacks Cancer Center and had three weeks of radiation treatments. He was on track to have immunotherapy early in 2017. While he was at Lacks and staying at Hope Lodge we’d have dinner some evenings and talk about the future. There was cancer in his liver and lung, too, he told me. We knew the prognosis was grim, but we viewed the future with hope, optimism and new opportunities. There were beers we’d drink, bike rides we’d take and talk of a big trip—to Europe or out west to see the solar eclipse. Then, like a plane dropping from the sky or a car crashing, he was gone. The lesions on his brain began to bleed and he slipped into unconsciousness on January 5, 2017. There was nothing to do except let him go—and in four days Phil was dead.
His death left a huge gap in my life—a heavy loneliness and sadness that comes when someone you counted on and loved unexpectedly goes missing. It’s hard to shake.
When someone close to us dies, we often ask, How will I honor that life? How will I continue to remember him?
For me, it’s staying in touch with Phil’s family, writing about our friendship and riding the Gran Fondo in his memory. My husband Mike and I are “The Phil Ins” a team of two people, trying to raise some money and do a little good so that Melanoma research can move forward—so that the Phils in other people’s lives will be cured and they’ll ride along with us.
Want to support The Phil Ins? http://www.msugranfondo.com/goto/The_Phil_Ins