Not Just ‘Taking a Swing’ at Sarcoma
Michael Salomone and his wife Melanie (2nd and 3rd from left) vacation with friends from college. Melanie was his biggest source of support during treatment and recovery. “As a cancer patient, your primary caregiver is so important in the daily grind to improve,” said Michael. “We worked so well together during difficult, painful and unsettled times. I was and am so lucky that she’s been there every step of the way.”
Michael Salomone, 54, was riding his daughter’s single-speed bicycle to work in May 2017 when he first felt the knot on the back of his thigh.
“I asked my daughter, who was playing college basketball at the time, what I should do, and she said, ‘Just roll it out,’ So that’s what I did. And I’ll be honest with you,” he said, laughing, “It was a misdiagnosis.”
The knot on the back of his leg lingered all through that summer of 2017 while he worked as a manager at the Doubletree Hotel in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, and, in his free time, played basketball in a rec league. The father-of-three wasn’t really worried about the knot because, in his mind, he just wasn’t giving it a chance to heal.
“I’m literally going seven days a week. So, obviously this little knot isn’t going anywhere,” he said, explaining his rationale for not getting it checked out by a doctor.
Finally, in November, Salomone asked a friend who was an athletic trainer to take a look.
“I asked him, ‘What’s going on back here?’ and he said, ‘That looks like a lipoma, (a benign fat deposit),’” recalled Salomone, “but he told me to get it checked anyway.”
So Salomone went straight to his primary care doctor.
“And the look he gave me,” recounted Salomone, “I’d love to play poker with this guy, because I knew something was wrong.”
The doctor suspected soft tissue sarcoma, and he ordered an MRI to map the tumor.
Sarcoma is a rare type of cancer that is divided into two groups: sarcoma of bone (osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Ewing sarcoma) and soft tissue sarcoma, or sarcoma that grows in the non-bony connective tissues of the body. Soft tissue sarcomas are difficult to spot and diagnose, as they can grow anywhere in the body and often present — as Salomone’s did — as a mostly painless lump or knot that can be misdiagnosed as a lipoma. As the sarcoma grows, it can press on muscles, tendons and nerves, and cause swelling and pain. According to the American Cancer Society, by the end of 2020, an estimated 13,000 people in the United States will have been diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma.
When the results of the MRI came back, Salomone was swiftly referred to a local cancer specialist.
“He told me, and this is a quote, that he’d like to ‘take a swing at it,’” said Salomone, repeating the expert’s words. “When stuff like this happens, you don’t want someone to just take a swing at it.”
He decided to look for another expert.
Salomone found the new-patient number for Duke orthopedic surgical oncologist Brian Brigman, MD, PhD, director of the sarcoma program at the Duke Cancer Institute, and read his MRI results out over the phone.
He was scheduled the following week for a consult with Brigman and Nicole Larrier, MD, MS, a radiation oncologist who treats adults and children with sarcomas and other conditions of the musculoskeletal system.
“The first time I met Dr. Larrier, she came in whispering, and telling me it was a very serious situation. Well, let me tell you something, I knew it was serious,” he remembered. “But I broke her. She’s easy to break, she’s an easy laugh. And whenever I see her now, I say to her, ‘Don’t be coming in here whispering, because then I know there’s something wrong. Just come on in here with – and excuse the language – your loud-ass self. This way I know I’m fine.’”
Don’t Give Up
Salomone and his wife Melanie live in Pine Knoll Shores, a small community just west of Atlantic Beach on the state's Crystal Coast.
“I’m lucky, we’re right on the water, and I look at the water every morning,” he said. “It’s really a perfect spot.”
When Larrier recommended Salomone undergo five weeks of radiation therapy, five days a week, he knew he’d have to spend the majority of every week away from home. Duke Cancer Center is a three-hour-and-twelve-minute drive (with no traffic) from Pine Knoll Shores.
Every Monday morning, he would leave home for that afternoon’s radiation therapy appointment at Duke. He’d have another session on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. On Friday he’d have an early morning session so he could get back home ahead of rush hour.
Fortunately, because he was a Hilton employee, he was able to book a suite at a hotel in Durham for a reduced rate — staying there for four nights each week.
Salomone spent most of those five weeks in treatment resting in his suite. His wife Melanie, who was a major source of support during Salomone’s treatment and who “has been there every step of the way for me,” is a pre-kindergarten special education teacher in Carteret County Schools. Her job kept her from being physically present during Salomone’s radiation treatment, but he said her support and love helped him push through the weeks of treatment.
“I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I was scared a few times, but I was never concerned for myself. I was concerned for my wife and kids.”
Before every radiation therapy appointment, Salomone would listen to “Don’t Give Up,” a 1986 ballad by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush.
“I’m a big music person. I used music to get me through that time,” he said.
Gabriel sings the story of a man experiencing crushing sadness and despair. Bush sings the chorus, telling the man not to give up, to remember his friends and family.
Thinking about staying strong for Melanie and his kids got him through those weeks.
“Talking about this song just brought me back to it,” he said, getting quiet for a minute, his voice becoming a little scratchy when he resumed telling his story.
A Strike Out
After completing radiation therapy, Salomone returned to Duke in early 2018 to see Brigman to have the sarcoma removed.
“Well, it was nothing big. I didn’t do it, I was just a participant,” said Salomone describing the surgery. “I have no idea what they did back there. My wife, Melanie, had the hard part. When the wound would open, she would have to pack the wound, close it up, all that stuff. She was a trooper. I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to get through this as well as I did if it wasn’t for her.”
The wound took weeks to heal — he blames that on his inability to sit still — and he’s now missing some of his hamstring and backside.
“I talk to people all the time about how I got this diagnosis,” he said. “And one of the things I say to them is that every day you get worried, and every day you get sad, that’s a day you’ve lost.”
This is a perspective Salomone has always had, even before he was diagnosed with sarcoma.
“I coached football and softball for 25 years. And one of the things I always told these kids is that if we run as fast as we can against the spin of the earth, maybe we can get some time back,” he said. “But I don’t think we can run that fast. So, we can’t worry about that.That’s done. Let’s pick a point and go forward from here. We can still affect the future. We can’t affect the past.”
In 2018, after his surgery, Salomone, his wife Melanie and his daughter Maggie attended the Duke Cancer Institute Strike Out for Sarcoma event, a 5K and family fun walk that included a dunk tank for DCI doctors and staff.
“I couldn’t even walk far enough to do the fun walk part,” he said. “But I will say this. My aim was on fire that day, and both Dr. Brigman and Dr. Larrier spent a lot of time in the drink because of me.”
A hurricane at the coast prevented Salomone from attending last year’s Strike Out for Sarcoma event. His goal was to attend the next one to show his doctors, in person, how far he’s come —“from not really being able to walk even a mile to now being able to walk ten miles.”
“I was recently talking to one of my friends,” he continued, “and this friend knows someone who had a parent get diagnosed with cancer. And my friend said, ‘I hope it’s your kind of cancer,’ and I said, ‘Why would you say that?’ and he said, ‘Because it wasn’t that bad.’ And I said to myself, ‘Wow, I did a good job, because they had no idea. They think this was one of the easy ones.’ Now, I know there’s no such thing as an easy cancer. But I do feel lucky to have had doctors I trusted implicitly. I felt so safe and secure in their care, and it helped me so much. I didn’t have to worry. No one was ‘taking a swing’ at anything.”
Strike Out For Sarcoma 5K & Family Fun Walk 2020
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