TAMPA (FOX 13) - Last year, Charlene Creel said her final goodbyes to her late husband, Tom, on the tranquil waters of the Gulf of Mexico. After mixing his ashes with concrete, his memorial became part of a thriving, underwater reef.
Charlene's journey to that point began more than three years ago. She discovered a lump in Tom's groin was melanoma, an aggressive skin cancer. It spread from a spot on his calf.
"It wasn’t a mole, it had no color, it had no irregular shape and it didn't appear to be changing. It almost looked like a knotted vein on the back of an older guy's calf," she described.
Usually, melanomas are dark-colored, misshapen and rapidly changing growths with irregular borders. Charlene knew that because she had one in the past. But Tom's cancer was different. It's called amelanotic.
"They don't look black. That's what the word amelanotic means," said Dr. Vernon Sondak at the Moffitt Cancer Center, where Tom was treated.
He says amelanotic melanomas are rare in adults, but that isn't true for kids. "In children, it's particularly commonplace. I'd say it might be as high as 30 to 40 percent of younger children."
Melanomas are curable if caught early, but these atypical cancers are often found late.
"It’s just one of the many tricks melanoma does to get under our defenses and under the radar screen and grow to a more dangerous state," Dr. Sondak continued.
Tom's diagnosis measured his survival time in months. But two experimental treatments, one using his own tumor and immune cells, gave him three more years of life.
Now, more than a year after his death, Charlene’s embracing activities Tom loved, like clay pigeon shooting.
"It has been amazing therapy to spend time in the woods. As I tell people, you're allowed to break things, and I tell people the goal of the sport is to break things,” she said.
She hopes telling their story will save others.
"Seeing a dermatologist on an annual basis and having a loved one look at things for you that you can't see. You know, be a team and make sure that you are preventing it together."
Moffitt Cancer Center is offering free skin cancer screenings at their "Mole Patrol" Saturday, July 29, at Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach from 9 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. For more information, head to the Moffitt Cancer Center Facebook page.