Doctor evaluates patient's mole for signs of melanoma

News | 5 months ago

Code T.O.M. Founder’s Wife Diagnosed with Melanoma

A few years after losing his father Tom to melanoma, Code T.O.M. founder James Robinson learns his wife Patti has melanoma.

In 2016, Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute launched Code T.O.M., a free educational program for firefighters. The program was created in honor of Tom Robinson, a dedicated husband, father and firefighter who died from advanced melanoma in 2013. His son, James Robinson, an Atrium Health teammate and volunteer firefighter, co-founded Code T.O.M. with Levine Cancer Institute.

Since the program began, it has educated thousands of firefighters about cancer risk and prevention. And in an ironic twist of fate, Code T.O.M. founder James’ wife Patti was also diagnosed with melanoma. Read on to learn more about Code T.O.M.’s impact over the past few years and how Patti learned she had melanoma.

Graphic explaining the different stages of melanoma

Code T.O.M. update

Code T.O.M. (Taking on Melanoma and other high-risk cancers) is a free cancer education, screening and prevention program that aims to raise awareness and help firefighters protect their health. The Code T.O.M. team travels to firehouses across the region to host workshops that include:

  • Education about the risk factors, signs and symptoms of cancer.
  • Tips for communicating with doctors about cancer risk.
  • Access to free screenings that can catch cancer early.

The program has had a significant impact, says Mellisa Wheeler, MHA, director of the disparities and outreach program at Levine Cancer Institute. In 2019, (prior to pausing for the COVID-19 pandemic) the Code T.O.M. team:

  • Educated more than 3,000 firefighters across 12 counties in North Carolina and South Carolina about cancer risk.
  • Screened 79 firefighters for skin cancer, with three cancer diagnoses.
  • Screened 195 firefighters for head and neck cancer, with one diagnosis.

As the pandemic reaches a more manageable state, Wheeler says, “We are now gaining more traction and have some upcoming sessions scheduled. We hope this program can come back better than ever.”

Patti and James Robinson’s story

Patti and James Robinson In 2016, James learned that his wife of 23 years, Patti, was diagnosed with melanoma, the same disease that took his father’s life. Thanks to early detection, Patti is still here today, though she underwent multiple surgeries and lost a toe on her right foot in the treatment process.

Patti first noticed a spot on her thigh that was peeling and bleeding. She went to her local doctor, who told her it was nothing to worry about. When the spot didn’t improve after six months, Patti went back to the doctor, who said he’d refer her to a dermatologist. Six months later, she still hadn’t received the referral. Finally, she saw a local dermatologist, who also said he wasn’t concerned. Patti continued to advocate for herself, particularly after seeing her father-in-law’s experience with melanoma, and the dermatologist biopsied the spot. Soon after, Patti got a call that she had melanoma.

“As soon as we got the results, James said, ‘You’re going down to LCI,’” says Patti.

She and James met with Terry Sarantou, MD, a surgical oncologist at Levine Cancer Institute. Patti pointed out another mole on her arm and Dr. Sarantou biopsied it before her surgery. He told her if it came back positive for melanoma, he could remove it during the same surgery. The spot on her arm turned out to be melanoma and it was deeper than the spot on her leg. Dr. Sarantou removed both melanomas during the same surgery.

Patti has since had six invasive surgeries and has scars on her arm, abdomen and leg.

“I have a six-inch scar on my leg from surgery to remove a tiny mole smaller than the size of a pencil eraser,” she says. “I’m not worried about the aesthetics at this point. I just want to live. This all happened right on the heels of Papa [Tom] dying, so it was really traumatic for me.”

Thankfully, the surgeries were successful.

“Melanoma treatment has evolved to a more multidisciplinary approach,” says Dr. Sarantou. “For many years, surgery was really the only therapy for melanoma. Now it’s quite different. We work closely with our medical oncology colleagues who prescribe medications, such as immunotherapy, either by IV or oral form. We often will give medication prior to surgery and again after surgery.”

This approach allows Dr. Sarantou and his colleagues to offer a less invasive approach to melanoma surgery.

“Also, with time and technology, there are improvements in tools and surgical techniques, so our patients are enjoying the benefits,” he says.

A passion for melanoma prevention

“This [experience] has made me much more aware of my children,” says Patti. “I freak out if I see any kind of mole that doesn’t look normal.”

She even insisted that her son wear long pants, a long-sleeve shirt and a hat on a recent canoe trip.

“We’ve been able to catch Patti’s cancers earlier,” says James. “We’re hypervigilant with our awareness level [of moles] based on our experience.”

She’s also had numerous biopsies that detected precancerous cells.

Her Levine Cancer Institute dermatologist, Shahab Babakoohi, MD, tracks all her moles to ensure they aren’t changing.  

“I never thought in a million years that we would experience what we’ve experienced,” says James.

James encourages people to educate themselves about what melanoma can look like and watch for changing spots on their partner’s skin.

Patti adds, “Get checked. You know your body. You know when something’s wrong. Keep insisting they do something about it until they do. If you don’t like the doctor you’re seeing, go to someone else. And keep an eye on your kids and family members.”

Melanoma prevention

“Be aware—that’s the most important thing,” says Dr. Sarantou. “Examine your body or have a family member check [hard-to-see] spots. Visit with your primary care physician or dermatologist on a regular basis. Avoid using a tanning bed or getting excessive sun exposure and wear sunscreen.”

Learn more about melanoma treatment at Levine Cancer Institute.