Kent Gilliam: Profile of a Fighter
As our first telephone interview wound down, I asked Kent Gilliam, a stage IV melanoma survivor, what message he wanted to send to those battling melanoma or other skin cancers. “Don’t give up on you,” Kent responded. He went on to say that, at times, we may feel alone in our fight, but there are others out there who are fighting the same battle and who are always there for you.
Family, friends, followers
For those of us with advanced melanoma, our journeys are both similar and dissimilar. There are always curves and cutbacks, ups and downs, and those twists and turns. Our families, our loved ones, and our friends are also part of this journey. But it’s our journey and we may have to remind ourselves: like riding a roller coaster, not everyone wants to ride every time.
My conversations with Kent reminded me that, as patients, we have to recognize when those around us may need a break.
Taking a break
Kent said, at times, people in his world seemed to shut him off. One time, while getting ready to golf, Kent mentioned wearing sunscreen. One of his fellow golfers, a close friend, responded, “Oh, here we go again. Kent’s gonna talk our ears off about his cancer.”
Kent took a moment to collect his thoughts, then continued. That friend, he said, vocalized what many around us (melanoma patients) may feel, but don’t actually say. “Sometimes, people need space...they need to step away, and take a mental break.”
That sentiment is not what many advanced melanoma patients might have expected, including me. Not everyone wants to ride the roller coaster or take every step on their journey.
Patience with others
Kent pointed out it’s important not to be resentful of those who take a break, whether it’s physical or emotional, or both. Some people stay on the sidelines for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Our journeys, he emphasized, are hard on everyone.
He went on to tell me that while “his wife is amazing” with her love and support, it was his fellow travelers who gave Kent a sense of community, of belonging, and the sense that he was not alone.
Community in the digital age
Kent’s community is an online private Facebook group. The Melahomies, as group members refer to themselves, are melanoma patients, survivors, and direct caregivers. Like most Facebook groups, The Melahomies have selective membership criteria and strict group rules.
As fellow travelers, The Melahomies are more than just a support group. “They’re family,” Kent explains. And his involvement with the group has grown to more than living with and dealing with a melanoma diagnosis. Members are there to support one another through all of life’s ups and downs. Kent says the Facebook group is his “safe space” and allowed him to deal with the emotional ups and downs of his journey.
In a guest blog post for the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF), Kent said that the love and support from his fellow Melahomies was the “emotional medicine” that got him through each and every day.
Kent Gilliam: Survivor, Fighter, Friend
That blog post, published in May, as part of Melanoma Awareness Month, was my introduction to Kent Gilliam and his journey.
As an advocate for skin cancer prevention and melanoma treatment research, I have met many fellow travelers whose stories resonate with me. Kent’s “Things I Wish I Knew...” segment echoed many of my own thoughts when I was newly diagnosed with stage IV melanoma, what we refer to as advanced melanoma, over eight years ago.
Kent’s journey, while unique, is anything but unique. Thousands of advanced-stage melanoma patients confront obstacles and confusion during their travels. After his stage IV diagnosis, Kent realized, early on, that he could not fight his battle alone.
His advice? “Find a group.” Whether it’s online or in your local community, Kent says to find others who are going to be there for you, no matter what. Kent found his group, his community, and he’s grateful for it.
Within the melanoma community, we may cross paths with other patients whose own journeys remind us how important it is to keep fighting—both for ourselves and for our fellow travelers. We’re truly one big community with one huge goal: defeating this dreaded disease.
Kent Gilliam is one fellow traveler with a valuable perspective on his journey. If you have a moment, read his guest blog. Some of what Kent says may resonate with you.
How well have your skin cancer diagnoses been explained to you?