Diary of a Life Cut Short

How An Ohio Couple Used Social Media
To Share Their Struggle with Melanoma

Eric Sizemore's YouTube channel is not for the squeamish. From 2010 to 2011, Sizemore and his wife Jill, both in their 40s, created a video diary of his battle with melanoma. Through nearly a dozen short videos, viewers enter his bedroom and hospital room, glimpsing Eric's tumor-covered legs and experiencing the ups and downs of his grueling treatments for this dangerous skin cancer, which had metastasized throughout his body. In one particularly graphic clip, Jill changes the bandages on a melon-sized tumor near his groin, the wound infected and bloody. The unmistakable message is that there is nothing pretty about this disease.

Cautionary Tale

The Ohio couple made their struggle public to save others. Eric, an Air Force veteran and manager at an auto repair shop, had frequented tanning salons, often to start a base tan before going on a beach vacation. Unfortunately, both sunburns and tans result from DNA damage that can lead to skin cancer. "We were ignorant about the dangers of skin cancer," said Jill. "You hear about it, but we didn't truly get it. We used sunscreen so we didn't burn on vacation, but always after being exposed a day or two."

In October 2008, Eric got a wake-up call when an "ugly" mole on his right ankle (which had been biopsied in 2007 and incorrectly ruled benign) was diagnosed as melanoma. He had no history of melanoma in his family. The news got worse: Eric soon learned the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, where melanoma cells could easily carry throughout his body.

"We were ignorant about the dangers of skin cancer. You hear about it, but we didn't truly get it."

To prevent a recurrence after the tumor and lymph nodes were removed, Eric's medical oncologist recommended four weeks of in-office injections then 11 months of at-home injections of high-dose interferon (IFN) alpha-2-b, a medicine that stimulates the immune system to fight foreign invaders such as cancer cells. However, IFN alpha-2-b works in a minority of melanoma patients, and after eight months of treatment, Eric's oncologist could see it wasn't working. Eric's legs were covered in nearly 100 red, inflamed tumors.

Jill was always by his side. She recorded videos as her husband went through treatments (uploading them on YouTube) and started a blog called "Tan Today, Tumors Tomorrow" to share her thoughts and emotions. For the next year and a half, without success, Eric worked his way through the gamut of melanoma drugs being tested in clinical trials. That fall, he learned that the cancer had spread to his brain. He needed emergency surgery to remove the tumor. "He was never right after that," said Jill. "He could not go back to work."

The couple had a brief glimmer of hope in January 2011, when Eric enrolled in a clinical trial combining two new drugs designed to inhibit or even reverse tumor growth in patients with a defective gene called BRAF, which is linked to more than half of all melanomas. At first, Eric's tumors dramatically shrank. "It was amazing; a week later we could tell the difference," said Jill. She posted pictures on her blog showing the major improvement in just a few weeks, as his leg began to appear tumor-free.

"My heart just sank. This was, after all, regression."

The relief was temporary. To date in most patients, these particular drugs eventually stop working, and the cancer comes back with a vengeance. That April, Eric discovered a lump near his groin, meaning the tumors had started growing again. "My heart just sank," said Jill. "This was, after all, regression."

Within months the cancer spread to his spinal cord, and he had several lesions on his brain. He was unable to move from the armpits on down. In one of his final videos while in hospice care, Sizemore is propped up on pillows, his legs paralyzed, speaking into the camera about his former tanning bed habit. "Look at me and ask if it's worth it," said Eric. "It's not. You more than double your chances of catching this disease by tanning one time, and it's just not worth it to look good for one evening... Don't do it. It has robbed me of the last three years of my life."

Those Left Behind

It ultimately robbed him of a lot more. Eric passed away on August 3, 2011, still a young man at age 47; Jill was lying by his side. Besides Jill, Eric left his son Rick, a granddaughter (Rick's daughter), two teenage step-daughters (Jill's daughters), and his parents and siblings.

As Jill grieved, she looked at the graphic images she had posted of the tumors multiplying on Eric's legs. She paused to wonder if she had shared too much. "It was very shocking to me. What must people have thought when they saw it?" said Jill.

"You have to realize it can happen to you; it's not worth the risk of going to a tanning bed even one time."

But then she remembered her and Eric's mission. "He was a devout Christian, a very giving and loving person, and though he's gone, he lives on in telling his story," she said. "We hope we have saved lives. We have to be our own health advocates and advocates for our children. You have to realize it can happen to you; it's not worth the risk of going to a tanning bed even one time."

Indeed, their story has touched many. For one example, a man contacted Jill on Facebook saying that because of Eric's story, he couldn't even bear to sell his at-home tanning bed. Instead, he destroyed it.