How a pair of running shoes saved my life

01 Jan 2021  |   Michelle Baker

Daniel Whitaker is not your average human. Following a melanoma diagnosis, which robbed him of his passion, which is running, he is punching back at the disease that nearly took his life by attempting to swim the English Channel. Dan is supporting the Melanoma Fund and here he tells his incredible story.

On 23rd March 2012, two things happened that changed my life forever. My daughter aged 5 was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, and I was diagnosed with Grade 1B malignant melanoma. It was like being hit by two freight trains at once, one in the heart and in the head.

Exercise is important to me, so I look after myself physically, mentally, and nutritionally to ensure I am at my best. I have always been into my running and competing in triathlons, for the last few years in mountain triathlons around the Lake District and Wales, as well as competing in an Iron Man 2011.

The best present ever

For Christmas 2011 I received new trail running shoes from my wife, which were probably the best present I’ll ever receive! When wearing them, I noticed there was itching & rubbing around a raised mole on the top of my foot, which I thought was due to the fit or just the process of wearing them in.

As I really liked the shoes, I kept on trying to ‘wear them in’ over the next few weeks. The mole would not have it by continued itching and then also started bleeding. It then took another form and grew 3 heads, tripled in size forming irregular margins, becoming discoloured and blurred at the edges. This is not normal, I had to do something about it and booked into the GP, with the next appointment being in two weeks’ time.

The worst news

It took just a few minutes into the appointment for the GP to refer me immediately to the dermatologist Dr. Pollock, at Pinderfield Hospital, Wakefield. After inspection, he prioritised me for dissection (minor surgery) the very next day, and although he was busy, fitted me in as his last patient before his two-week holiday.

Although the operation to remove the mole is known as an operation with ‘small margins’ (cut close to the mole for less skin removal), it still however involved over 20 stitches under local anesthetic, so not that minor.

Two weeks later I had a call from Dr. Pollock to hear the worst – the mole was malignant melanoma. As my partner Vicky recalls this moment; “I remember Dan calling me about his cancer diagnosis but at that time we were all consumed, having just received our daughter Anna’s diabetes diagnosis. We were living hour by hour and day by day. Dan had no choice but to just crack on and dealt with his own feelings, as well as emotionally support Anna and me, which was in hindsight incredible”.

The reality of cancer

Dealing with these two bombshells created a new me. I reacted by simply dealing with what was in front of me as looking into the future, looked far too grim. I was gutted, shocked, and couldn’t think straight, yet life carries on.

An hour after the phone call I had an appointment with the GP to remove my stitches. I put the phone down, gathered my wits, and hobbled down to the surgery to discuss the next steps and have the operation progress checked, leaving Vicky to hold the fort.

The next steps were all about future prevention of skin cancer, surgery then Oncology. There was an opportunity to go private via work, however, the surgeon assigned to this operation was off work due to a cycling injury, so I had the operation with the NHS. There was 8 weeks wait which was an anxious time. The ‘not knowing whether there was anything still in my body feeling’ was intense. I just wanted it out – all of it!

It was decided to take larger margins from the mole area, which was obviously more invasive and disfiguring, something you can compare to a shark bite on the foot. Larger margins basically mean, a very large scar by cutting wider around the site of the mole to ensure the removal of any remaining cancer, which could obviously grow back.

I had appointments with the nurse and surgical team to discuss the importance of my recovery, and the usage of the foot, for everyday and sports usage, the importance of physiotherapy, and the option of a skin graft, which in the end was not possible, so I went for surgery, stretch the skin together stitches, and hoped they would take. Nothing was promised and it was a time just spent hoping for the best, but expecting the worst!

More treatment

I also had the lymph nodes checked with an ‘ingruinal node biopsy’ to see if the cancer had spread internally. I took the stance that ‘I would rather know than not’ and therefore have any further medication as needed. This procedure was optional for my grade, and there are side effects from this invasive procedure. Thankfully, following the dissection, it was all clear, which meant the cancer was not destined for other areas of my body.

The surgical margin operation required 70 stitches and unfortunately, the skin died back on the top of my foot. There was nothing for the skin to take to, resulting in a very tight foot due to the scar tissue, creating complications with my everyday movement.

After the surgical procedure, I was referred under the care of Prof. Julia Newton Bishop in the Oncology department at Leeds, St James’s University Hospital. Regular monthly visits to the skin cancer clinics for 5 years were planned. At these appointments, my lymph nodes in my groin were checked as well as other moles reviewed. You just strip to your underwear and get examined! After 5 years, you are expected to be vigilant and report back any changes if they should happen.

The road to recovery

My skin cancer journey required 5 months off work to recover physically and mentally. My family and friends were just amazing and so supportive. We had to plan for my partner Vicky to have time off work to drive and accompany me to the wound clinic for dressing and bandage changes. Believe it or not, these appointments became a highlight – just to get out of the house was a relief.

A memorable part of the journey was having my freedom and independence taken from me as I recovered from the surgery. For two weeks I needed help to get down the stairs etc so, whilst Vicky was at work, we created an area in the lounge for me to sit and stand and pre-prepared meals.

It was so painful to move around, it felt like my foot was wrapped in a very tight bandage and set on fire. Every heartbeat, pulsing in my veins was felt on the top of my foot like a knife stab! It could be very lonely in the house with everyone else getting on with their lives, leaving me to ponder how mine had changed so dramatically. I was glad that the Olympics were on and never had a shortage of friends ring me for daily highlights into normal life.

I vividly remember the day I got my freedom back and could drive and walk around again. I popped down to the supermarket; got a custard slice and a cycling magazine, and then headed to the park by the local lake and sat on the car bonnet, looking over the water, calling my friends to celebrate this milestone – independence and freedom.

On the other side

Although there is always the threat of melanoma returning and other after-effects such as no more running due to my compromised foot gait, node biopsy means sciatica pain if I sit too long, swollen ankles when walking for too long, and a very large scar, I have never been more grateful for life. I appreciate every single day in a more intense way.

As exercise is such an important aspect of my life, I decided to do what I could, and now cycle and swim with a passion, which leads nicely to my next challenge.

Fighting back

To ensure more awareness is raised around melanoma and more understand what to look out for, Daniel is supporting the Melanoma Fund with an English Channel swim. He is currently busy undertaking 6-hour training swims and discovering how to sun protect as well as cold-proof his skin to withstand over 13 hours in the unforgiving water. Find out more and how you can support him to ensure he raises as much as possible to prevent others from having to tell a similar story. Visit just fundraising page HERE