Reach, grip, step. One final grab and he was at the top. He looked behind him to see his little brother, David, a dozen feet below. This journey was complete. He had conquered every obstacle in his way to reach the final hard, plastic shape on the wall. Though it didn’t come close to the normal climbing he did with his sister in Colorado, sophomore Zach Evans still felt the euphoria he feels while climbing. All of this was done without hurting his toe, which had been through a procedure just a few days prior.
Evans was diagnosed with stage II Acular melanoma skin cancer in December, but his mind was at ease. He focused on the present, just like he always had. Though he accomplished the journey to the top of the rock wall, he had another, more difficult journey to continue.
With other, more important surgeries only four days away, Evans completed what could have been his last climb. He pushed himself to climb for two hours, maybe a little too hard, but the minor pain was a small sacrifice for doing what he loved most.
According to Evans, there was no need to worry about the hour and a half long surgery on March 7 that would extract his Acular melanoma, and amputate one of his toes along with it. His one question throughout his struggle with melanoma was an obvious one to him and his family members: when would he be able to climb again?
Evans started climbing at age 9. His first climb was just off the side of the road in Colorado on 30 foot boulders. After his first taste of climbing, he wanted to keep moving onto bigger and more difficult climbs. He climbed his way up bigger mountains and hikes with his sister. From Pinnacle Mountain in Arkansas, to Horsetooth Rock in Colorado, Evans went climbing up to once a month while he took visits to see his father in Colorado.
Acular Melanoma is a subtype so rare, there are no medical documents on it for Evans’ age group and race, caucasian. His father and orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Richard Evans, acknowledges that everything about Evans’ case is unusual, and compared it to the likeliness of being struck by lightning.
“[Acular melanoma] does occur, but predominantly in black and Hispanic people,” Dr. Evans said. “[Doctors] have no idea why it’s more prevalent in minorities. They just don’t know enough about it.”
This cancer usually occurs on the bottom of feet or hands or toes, though doctors don’t know what causes it. It doesn’t act like the other melanomas as it isn’t a result of sun exposure. Doctors told Evans that they currently believe Acular melanoma is more aggressive and faster moving than the other melanomas, though they don’t know enough to be sure.
Evans discovered the irregular blemish on the bottom of his foot after falling down in the shower. He brought it to his dad’s attention immediately. According to Dr. Evans, if a person suddenly notices a strange, irregular looking mole, it is important to have a doctor or parent take a look.
After the dermatologist in Kansas City diagnosed it as an atypical mole in early February, Dr. Evans was still convinced something was off. He took matters into his own hands, and had Evans’ tissue samples sent down to MD Anderson in Houston, TX – one of the top cancer centers in the country. Doctors at MD Anderson confirmed from these samples that Evans had melanoma.
When the doctors called Evans with the results of his tissue samples on Feb. 18, he got on Skype with his mom and brother here at home to talk to his father in Colorado. He didn’t ask questions about mortality or pain, he simply decided he was going to get through it.
“[Zach] was very brave. He did better than all of his family around him did, that says a lot about him,” Dr. Evans said.
The question at that point was then if the cancer had metastasized. To find out, they did procedures to stage it from 0 to 5, with 0 meaning that it’s localized and removable, 5 meaning it’s metastasized. Doctors determined Evans’ cancer was staged at 0.
The next step in Evans’ journey was to have his fourth toe amputated on March 7 to remove the melanoma. On the same day, he also had three sentinel nodes removed from his hip to check for cancer cells, along with the removal of several other questionable moles.
“Fortunately, they only found [the cancer] in the end of his toe. He could not have been luckier,” Dr. Evans said. “The problem with that would have been that this particular cancer, melanoma, is extremely hard to treat after it reaches above 0, that’s why the fatality rate is so high.
Throughout his journey with cancer, Evans remained calm and positive. He analyzed each struggle and whether worrying would help the situation.
“I was more disgruntled than crushed,” Evans said. “I look at the majority of life as equations, there is a problem and you have to find the solution.”
Evans’ family members were all proud of his capability to stay optimistic at a difficult time. His mother, Sandi Evans, believes her son has made a positive impact on her life because of his perseverance and grace.
“[Zach] realized more so than ever truly how precious life can be,” Sandi said. “You have to look for the good, and that’s what he did.”
Evans’ sister, Alyssa, was a climbing guide at her college’s outdoor rec. center. She knows it will be hard for Evans to climb without his toe at first, and it will take a long time to for the wound to heal
“Our whole family has been very encouraging to him, this should not change anything,” Alyssa said. “I see people at rock gyms that have an arm or a leg amputation but are still climbing super hard. Once he feels better and feels like he can hike, we will keep going and keep [climbing].”
Sandi has been largely impacted by Evans’ optimistic attitude. To her, his story could save a life by teaching people the importance of skin checks. She encourages him to share it with as many people as possible, even his Boy Scout troop.
Although Evans was declared cancer-free March 16, he remembers the tests and treatments melanoma brought him, so in two years he’ll pick a school where he can bury his head in books on radiology. But for now, he’s focused on which ropes he’ll need for climbing this summer.