John Hedgepeth stands behind his pulpit every Sunday morning, his deep southern drawl washing over his congregation as his passionate sermon resonates with the congregants at Northwood Temple in Fayetteville, NC, the church he has served for over 50 years. His calling to ministry stemmed from a “burning desire” to save lives and he is a teacher, a listener and an advocate for every member of his congregation. They come to him looking for advice, help, and guidance during both the trials and triumphs of their lives, but when he himself was diagnosed with melanoma three years ago, he wasn’t sure where to turn for the medical support and guidance he needed.
During a routine dermatology appointment, his doctor noticed an unusual growth on Pastor Hedgepeth’s left forearm. She recommended he make appointments at both Duke and UNC Cancer Hospital to meet the doctors and get a comprehensive diagnosis. Pastor Hedgepeth met with Dr. Karyn Stitzenberg, Associate Professor of Surgery and a Surgical Oncologist at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “After meeting Dr. Stitzenberg,” says Pastor Hedgepeth, “I liked her so much I canceled my other appointments. During that initial appointment, while my family and I talked with her, I took her hands in mine because I can tell a lot about a person from their hands. Moreover, from her hands, I knew this was the doctor I wanted to care for me and eventually others in my congregation.”
“People want to examine my hands from time to time,” says Dr. Stitzenberg. “Other patients want to hold a hand and say a prayer. I tend to shake hands with my patients a lot. I think it helps solidify the connection and the message that we’re in this together.”
When recounting why he chose Dr. Stitzenberg to care for him, Pastor Hedgepeth said, “She assured me she had time. That’s what life is made of. She understood that I am a clergyman, someone that answers all things for all people. However, in this situation, I had my own anxieties, and she soothed and calmed them. She didn’t just try and be clinical like many do. She didn’t try to act like a god. She didn’t act like she was the lord of everything. She was confident she could perform the surgery but was open if I wanted a second opinion from another source. “
Pastor Hedgepeth never lost confidence in his choice of Dr. Stitzenberg and the team at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Care Center. About a week after the initial meeting, Pastor Hedgepeth’s test results returned from the biopsy. Dr. Stitzenberg personally called him with the results. “Much of the stress of cancer comes from the anxiety about the unknown and waiting on test results,” says Dr. Stitzenberg. “I find that knowing results early decreases patient’s anxiety even if the results are not good news. Also, by knowing test results before clinic appointments, patients have time to digest that information and put together their list of questions for our next appointment.”
Pastor Hedgepeth was diagnosed with superficial spreading melanoma, a common type of skin cancer, which had appeared on his left forearm a few years before it was discovered. Superficial spreading melanoma (SSM) is a type of skin cancer that slowly grows across the epidermis or top layer of skin before penetrating deeper below the surface. It’s the most common form of melanoma and accounts for approximately 70% of diagnosed cases. Early stages of SSM may look like a flat or slightly raised discolored patch of skin. Over time, the pigmentation of the patch could darken or lighten, or the lesion could grow and develop irregular borders. This type of melanoma does not discriminate when it comes to age and can be found all over the body. It’s most commonly found on sun-exposed skin but can occur anywhere on the body.
Dr. Stitzenberg performed an outpatient procedure on Pastor Hedgepeth to remove the cancer. She did a wide local excision and sentinel node staging procedure, meaning she cut out the tumor from the skin but also removed the lymph node most likely to harbor spread of tumor. Fortunately, both the edges of skin around the excision and the lymph node were clear without evidence of tumor.
“When she found out the results she didn’t get another (person) to call,” says Pastor Hedgepeth, “she called herself, and that really impressed me. That will forever be etched in my mind. This woman called me and told me nothing else was there. She told me to call my family, my friends and let them know. That’s what you call hands on.”
“I try to call patients with results whenever I can,” says Dr. Stitzenberg, “but sometimes if it’s going to be awhile before I can make the call, my staff will contact them for me because I want them to have their results as soon as possible.”
Ever since his scare with cancer, Pastor Hedgepeth has kept Dr. Stitzenberg and her work very much in his thoughts. When members of his congregation come to him with medical concerns relating to cancer, his recommendation is that they speak with Dr. Stitzenberg. When one of his congregants, Jean, was diagnosed with melanoma on her leg, a local doctor recommended that she have her leg amputated. The family sought out Pastor Hedgepeth for guidance, and he suggested they call Dr. Stitzenberg. Dr. Stitzenberg met with Jean and her family right away. Ultimately, one of Dr. Stitzenberg’s colleagues, a medical oncologist who specializes in melanoma, was able to treat the tumor with immune therapies and she was able to save her leg.
Hedgepeth recalls, “She (Dr. Stitzenberg) now has personal contact with the doctor in Fayetteville who wanted to take the leg. She showed him another viable, practical way to save a woman’s appendage and because of that he now calls her with cases. This has happened on various occasions here. Dr. Stitzenberg is probably the best most amiable, most likable doctor that I have met in many years. She is a great woman; she cares about people. I have given her a title. Her title is humanitarian. She is the tops of all time.”
“Most of my relationship with Pastor Hedgepeth has been forged over the past few years after his surgery,” says Dr. Stitzenberg, “I continue to follow him in surveillance for his cancer, and I have had the privilege of caring for several of his family members and parishioners. He is unbelievably dedicated to his congregation and his community, so now anytime anyone he knows is diagnosed with cancer, he is quick to reach out and ask for advice on how best he can support that person and advocate for them. In many ways, we are the same. Neither of us sees our work as just a job. We are both caregivers who recognize what an honor it is to be able to meet people in their time of need and stand by them through their journey.”