Life Comes At You Fast: Ultimate Motorcycling Editor’s Letter, 4/21

One of my favorite sayings is, “Life comes at you fast.” I do my best to slow it down, but I’m not always successful.

When I shattered my right fibula and tibia last May and was lying in the hospital bed with 50 staples from my knee down my shin, I had no doubt that I would ride again. I knew it would take a while, and it did. However, I was eventually back up on two wheels. In January, I was tooling around on a Yamaha TT-R125LE trail bike, followed by the new Harley-Davidson Street Bob 114 and Honda Rebel 1100 DCT in February, and hitting my full riding stride on the Honda CRF450RL. Then I noticed a hard spot on my cheek.

Editor's Letter desmoplastic melanoma 2021 Honda TT-R125LE
2021 Yamaha TT-R125LE

A trip to the dermatologist revealed a lump in my right cheek (the one on my face). A biopsy was taken, and the results were unnerving—desmoplastic melanoma. Now, as someone who has ridden my share of Ducatis, I did smirk a bit at the name. “Just call me Desmo Doni,” I told those who would understand. Yet, it was serious business—the tumor in my cheek was out to kill me.

My initial consultation with a leading City of Hope surgeon was encouraging. While he would have to dig the tumor out of my cheek—a not-insignificant bit of surgery—he felt that I would be fine. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” were his reassuring words.

I endured various scans before surgery, and the results were good—no detectable tumors anywhere from head-to-toe. Still, it’s a rare cancer in my cheek, and a fairly large mass of it.

Editor's Letter desmoplastic melanoma Honda Rebel 1100
2021 Honda Rebel 1100 DCT

One of the surgery’s side effects was that there would be a large divot in my cheek. Material was being taken out, and it’s not easily replaced. Some (possibly extensive) plastic surgery would be needed to return my face to some level of normalcy. That meant no motorcycle riding for a while because I wouldn’t be able to wear a helmet. Remember, this is all coming shortly after an eight-month riding break after breaking my leg.

I started wondering if the rides I was going to take the weekend before my Monday surgery were going to be my last. Although I didn’t truly believe they would be, the thought crossed my mind like a freight train at a railroad crossing. Life seemed to be coming at me fast.

We had a Benelli TRK 502 and Honda CB500X that needed riding, so Associate Editor Kelly Callan and I took them out for an extended spin on Saturday. They’re two takes on ADV, and we’re working on a story comparing them. It was a beautiful day and a great ride.

Editor's Letter - April 2021 - Honda CRF450RL
2021 Honda CRF450RL

I intended to take the CRF450RL out on Sunday, but decided that the possibility of getting injured the day before a life-saving surgical procedure wasn’t a smart risk. Plus, I thought, “I’ll be riding again.” If not, the Benelli and Honda would be my swan song after 50 years on motorized two-wheelers.

The surgeon cut out the tumor, which turned out to be unusually large and aggressive. The hole was nasty, as advertised. What I didn’t expect that the preliminary pathology report would be daunting. My previously optimistic surgeon looked at the early results and, with an ashen face, told me that the cancer had unexpectedly spread to multiple lymph nodes. My prognosis was “not good,” he said succinctly. Life was now coming at me very fast.

One of my sisters in the medical field, who had earlier urged me to get a second opinion, was now more insistent. She set me up with a leading research oncologist at UCLA Medical Center. When he reviewed the final pathology report, he was less concerned about the spread—it turned out to be trace amounts—and believes a year of immunotherapy treatment will take care of the problem. There’s no way I can tell you how much of a relief that was.

Editor's Letter - April 2021 - Harley-Davidson Street Bob 114
Harley-Davidson Street Bob 114

Oh, and the oncologist also told me that seven years ago that he would have had no way to help me. Desmoplastic melanoma is rare, so it doesn’t get as much attention from researchers as more common cancers—makes sense. However, while doing work on sarcoma, they found that something called pembrolizumab worked quite well on my oddball cancer. Timing is everything, I suppose.

Various doctors at the City of Hope and UCLA Medical Center talked it over and decided that, although the pembrolizumab treatment is still considered experimental, that it was the best course of action for me. The alternative was more surgery, followed by radiation treatment—that is as bad as it sounds. In the meantime, the City of Hope opened up a genetic study of my highly uncommon tumor—nothing would make me happier than for them to find out something that helps others in the future.

One big takeaway that I hope you’ll remember is that it’s not enough to simply get a second opinion. You want to get a second opinion from a doctor in a different discipline. That will give you a fully alternative perspective, which quite literally changed my life.

With the treatment determined, the plastic surgeon went to work on me, and he was happy with the results. It looked terrible to me, but it will take six months for the healing of my face to be complete. I trust he knows his stuff.

Editor's Letter desmoplastic melanoma plastic surgery
Post-plastic surgery

Once the plastic surgery healed enough, I went in for my first of 17 immunotherapy treatments. The great news is that, as expected, there were no side effects. One of the side effects is that it can trigger an auto-immune reaction that can kill you. Also, the side effects can happen at any time during the treatment, so I’m not out of the woods with that for a year. Regardless, I’m confident I’m not going to have any more bad luck.

As I write this, the plastic surgery is healing at a faster-than-expected pace, just as my leg did. I’ve always had good recovery genes—I’ll credit my dad for that. He’s been going through a pacemaker installation during all this, but he’s doing better than expected, too.

I should be able to don a helmet before the end of April, so my last ride didn’t turn out to be my last ride. I missed several new model launches that I was dying (heh) to go on, but that’s life (heh, again).

Through all this, people ask me how I’m feeling. The fact of the matter is, I’ve never felt bad. If the doctors didn’t tell me I had cancer, I would never have known. The only discomfort I’ve had is the result of two major surgeries on my face. Even then, recovery from the surgeries wasn’t terrible.

While well-wishers, and I cherish every one of them, congratulate me on my fight against cancer, I’m really not actively fighting anything. I just show up for appointments on time. It’s all in the hands of the surgeons, doctors, and the medicine. It’s odd to be a bystander in a fight for my life. All I have to offer is my positive outlook, which is of some value, I’m told.

Life is coming at me a bit more slowly, and for that, I am profoundly grateful. I can’t wait to get back on a motorcycle.