Melanoma isn’t the cancer most advocates like to inform the community about — but for Australian man Ben Debono, spreading awareness for the disease is something he feels particularly strongly about.
This November would have been his one-year anniversary with his wife, Leah. The couple married in late 2016, planning on traveling around Australia together with their dog now that they had the rest of their lives to spend together.
Instead, just a month after they tied the knot, Leah collapsed at work. Three months later, she was dead.
It started about four years before the couple got married; Leah had a mole on her arm checked out by doctors, making sure the growth wasn’t cancerous for her own health and safety.
Both doctors she saw insisted everything was fine.
But another trip to have it removed a year later—this time without worries of cancer in her head, only the hope of a cosmetic improvement—proved the first two medical professionals had been quite wrong.
What the first doctors had promised Leah was nothing to be worried about was actually stage-four malignant melanoma—skin cancer—meaning the cancer had spread beyond her lymph nodes.
She had the lymph nodes surrounding the area removed, and was given the all-clear — but even though regular check-ups over the following three years left her feeling confident about her prognosis, exhaustion started to creep in around the time of the wedding.
The hope was that the exhaustion was pregnancy, but was instead diagnosed as simply post-wedding stress that would abate over time.
Doctors still reassured Leah that nothing was wrong up until she collapsed at work that month after their wedding.
At that point, more aggressive testing proved that her doctors had been wrong for a while. The cancer had spread far beyond her skin and her lymph nodes, taking up residence throughout her internal organs and her brain.
While they were walking down the aisle, Ben revealed, Leah already had a brain tumor.
“She was riddled with cancer,” Ben said.
He told 60 minutes, sharing her story in hopes of raising awareness for their situation.
Ben and Leah’s parents want to know where the system failed their loved one, still searching for answers as to how multiple doctors from multiple practices — spanning multiple years — all managed to give the 29-year-old woman the all-clear when her body was slowly being ravaged by a deadly disease.
Had they caught things ahead of time, the outcome may have been quite different.
According to the American Cancer Society, Stage one melanoma has a 5- and 10-year survival rate well above 90 to 95 percent, which is often affected by other outlying factors.
Even as late as stage three, melanoma patients have a 5-year survival rate as high as 70 percent, and a 10-year survival rate anywhere from 24 to 68 percent.
By the time melanoma reaches stage four, though, the 5-year survival rate has plummeted to just 15-20 percent (and just 10-15 percent for the 10-year survival rate), and is considered incredibly hard to cure with current treatments.
Ben admitted that his journey across Australia still has incredibly hard moments. He has to pull over to the side of the road sometimes, he confessed.
“You’ve just gotta pull over to the side of the road,” he said, “and have a moment… you can’t breathe.”
He’s hoping that his story will help save someone else’s life, though. By spreading awareness through the Australian community of a worst-case scenario, he wants to see diligence improve and life expectancies go up through early intervention.
Hopefully, he’ll get to see his wish come true.
If you or a loved one think you could have melanoma, the Melanoma Institute Australia has a checklist available online . Always let your doctor know if you feel something is suspicious, and trust your gut feeling.
Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion if things still don’t seem right.
Watch the 60 Minutes story below: