Melanoma: a survivor’s story

This story will appear in the upcoming May/June issue of Soybean Business Magazine. 

For most people who spot the first signs of skin cancer, detection often begins with the discovery of an abnormal mole.

Jay Zielske was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma in 2014.

Jay Zielske’s circumstances are unusual in more ways than one.

“I’m very fortunate and blessed,” Zielske says four years after he was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma.

His harrowing and triumphant medical story began in 2014, just a month after his oldest daughter Danielle’s wedding. Zielske, 54 at the time, was shaving when he noticed a series of lumps near his right jawline. He visited a doctor, who was shocked to discover Zielske had melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

“It took them by surprise because I wasn’t feeling any discomfort and didn’t have any of the visual symptoms,” he says.

Doctors couldn’t locate the source of the melanoma but found cancerous lymph nodes; the disease had spread to Zielske’s lungs, liver, stomach and femur. Doctors told Zielske the median survival rate for a patient in his condition was five to nine months.

“Of course you ask: ‘Why me’?” he says. “It’s definitely life-change and reassess your priorities.”                      

Ever the optimist, Zielske says the timing of his diagnosis actually worked in his favor because new breakthrough immunotherapy drugs had just been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Four years later, Zielske, an agronomist and account manager at Pioneer, is a walking medical miracle. For more than a year, defying all odds and prognosis, Zielske’s doctors haven’t detected cancer in his body.

“The scary thing about melanoma and cancer is it’s a sneaky disease,” he says “I had a strong faith, family and friends and kept a positive attitude. But I’m very lucky, because every situation is different.”

And now he’s telling his survival story during Melanoma Awareness Month in hopes of educating people – and particularly farmers – about prevention and the dangers of sun exposure. He’s become a veritable expert on melanoma and is sharing his story with the agricultural community.  

“I feel like it’s my calling to get to do something about this,” he says. “From my employers to the growers that I work with, the support has just been incredible. And I find that I’m not alone in having this disease.”

Before his diagnosis, Zielske was like many Americans. He shunned sunscreen, liked the look of his tanned skin and bleached hair. Today, he wears a wide-brimmed hat in the summer and puts sunscreen on his face and neck, and often wears long-sleeved shirts.

“If a person is really going to be vigilant, they should put on sunscreen about every three hours,” Zielske says. “But how many people are going to do that?”

Zielske says farmers, more than most professions, need to be hyperaware of sun exposure and should check often for abnormal moles.

“The first step is detection,” Zielske says. “It’s like a farmer scouting for weeds – they should also scout their bodies for abnormal moles.”

Zielske found inspiration while attending a Melanoma Symposium at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. He has a goal to eventually participate in the Symposium’s five-year survivor’s panel.

Only a fool would bet against him.

“All anyone wants with cancer is to have hope,” he says. “After hearing those stories on the panel – I was so moved. And I told my wife and my doctor, ‘I want to be on that panel.’”