Cancer survivor urges people to get regular checkups, listen to their bodies

Devin Wilkes
Cancer survivor, Devin Wilkes and his wife on his last day of treatment.
One in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime.

While this may sound like an alarming statistic, the good news is that skin cancer is highly treatable – when it’s caught early.

For Devin Wilkes, a simple dermatologist checkup ended up saving his life.

Devin's Cancer Story

Before his own cancer diagnosis, Devin was dealt a heavy blow when his father passed away in April 2017 due to complications from melanoma.

Since one of the risk factors for melanoma is genetics, Devin’s wife insisted he go to the dermatologist for a checkup since he hadn’t been in years. A suspicious mole on the middle of his back was removed, biopsied, and tested positive for melanoma.

At the recommendation of his dermatologist, Devin met with a general surgeon for a larger excision of the area, and to have his lymph node removed and tested.

“The melanoma excision area in the middle of my back became infected and the wound reopened, which was a nightmare,” he said. 

The lymph node tested positive and Devin was diagnosed with stage IIIA melanoma.

“To be diagnosed with the same cancer that had taken my dad's life was terrifying,” he said.

The treatment that saved his life

What started as a melanoma diagnosis soon became more complicated as doctors discovered other health issues. – can you 

"I was referred to an oncologist (Dr. Terence Rhodes), who informed me I would need a PET scan and MRI prior to our meeting. At our appointment I was informed that the PET results showed no abnormalities, however, the MRI revealed a 1.5-inch tumor on my brain,” said Devin.

Luckily, the tumor was a non-cancerous acoustic neuroma -- but due to its size, it had to be removed immediately. Devin had brain surgery on Jan. 14, 2019. The operation required severing his acoustic nerve, which left him deaf in his right ear.

Not long after his brain surgery, he started monthly immunotherapy treatments for melanoma, which he completed in January 2020. Devin described the side effects of his treatment as “minimal,” usually consisting of muscle soreness and overall fatigue.

Devin has regular check ups to ensure that he stays healthy. 

“I currently go in for a PET and MRI every six months and have been cancer-free!” he said. 

A bittersweet experience

Looking back on his cancer treatments, Devin says that the two days that stand out most in his memory are the first and last days of treatment.

“I remember going in for my first treatment and being so scared, and not sure what to expect.  My nurse was amazing and calmed me down, letting me know exactly what to expect,” he said. 

Devin is grateful for the many care providers who helped him along the way, and knows his overall experience was positive because of the excellent care they provided. 

“The nurses and providers at Intermountain were amazing! They were very comforting, able to answer any questions or concerns we had, and made me feel like I was getting the best care possible.”  

When his final day of treatment came, Devin said it was “bittersweet” because of the connections he had formed with his nurses and providers.

“It's a weird feeling because you are so excited to be done with treatments, but it was also hard because the nurses and providers had become great friends,” he said. 

And while Devin hopes he’ll never have to see his doctors and nurses under the same circumstances again, he’ll never forget what they did for him. 

“I am incredibly grateful for the awesome care I have received from Intermountain and credit them with saving my life!” he said.

Lessons learned from cancer

Though there are few upsides to having cancer, Devin’s experience taught him several valuable lessons.

First, don’t take your health (or your health insurance) for granted.

“Don’t think you have to be older to run into health problems,” he said. “It is important to have good health insurance, get regular checkups, and listen to your body!”

And for anyone battling cancer or dealing with a recent diagnosis, Devin offered a few words of hope and encouragement.

“Cancer is not a death sentence. Cancer technology/treatment is always changing and Intermountain Healthcare has cutting-edge cancer technology/treatments. You can beat cancer!”

What you should know about skin cancer and prevention

Skin cancer may not be top-of-mind for you in the cold winter months, but Devin’s story illustrates the importance of staying constantly vigilant -- even when you’re not seeing a lot of sun. Here are some things that can help you to protect yourself and your skin health:

  • Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the U.S. than all other cancers combined each year
  • It’s highly treatable when caught early. The Skin Cancer Foundation also reports that the five-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early is 99%. 
  • The most dangerous skin cancer. Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Risk factors for melanoma include high altitude, fair skin tones, significant sun exposure, tanning beds, and family history.
  • When to see a doctor. See a doctor if you notice irritated or unnatural looking skin growth. If you’re at high risk for melanoma (see risk factors above), have your doctor perform a yearly skin check to monitor suspicious moles or growths. 
  • Prevention. Protect your skin during peak sun hours (between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), wear sunscreen and protective accessories such as hats and sunglasses. Experts also recommend avoiding indoor tanning beds.

Schedule an appointment with a dermatologist

Skin cancer can happen to anyone -- even those who protect themselves from the sun. If you’re concerned about your skin or would like some peace of mind, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider today. 

Early detection could save you from more aggressive treatments -- and it could potentially save your life.

To find a dermatologist near you, click here.