It’s easy to spot Richard “Dick” Welchons’s car in the parking lot: the 90-year old drives a 2016 bright yellow Camaro, his third version of the high-powered muscle car.
He has no plan to give it up any time soon — especially after doctors spotted something suspicious on his left foot in 2014, momentarily forcing him out of the driver’s seat and into a hospital room.
In 2013, Welchons was wrapping up what he thought would be a normal annual physical. Just as he was getting ready to leave, his primary care physician noticed a mole on the bottom of his left pinky toe. The physician encouraged him to see a dermatologist.
“I knew the mole was there, but I had never paid much attention to it. I thought it was just part of getting old,” explains Welchons.
The results of the biopsy brought back life-altering news: Welchons had in-transit metastasis melanoma. The term “in-transit metastasis,” which is exclusively used in skin cancers, describes cancer that has spread to an area between the primary spot and a distant lymph node (a structure that is part of the body’s immune system). Welchons’s melanoma had started to spread but had not yet reached his nearest lymph node — for him, the one located in his groin.
“That’s when things got serious,” recalls Welchons. “It wasn’t until I got the diagnosis that I realized how severe this was.”
“The more we read about melanoma the more scared we became,” adds Nancy Conway, Dick Welchons’s daughter. “We knew we needed to be someplace where he could see a specialist.”
On the insistence of his nephew, who at the time was completing his residency at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Welchons headed to Boston for his treatment.
Constructing a plan
Due to the aggressiveness of his melanoma, Welchons first met with Charles Yoon, MD, PhD, director of surgery for Cutaneous Oncology and Melanoma at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC). Yoon needed to immediately amputate Welchons’s left pinky toe before transferring him to DF/BWCC melanoma specialist, Elizabeth Buchbinder, MD. Buchbinder would be charged with monitoring his disease and devising a treatment plan moving forward.
While the surgery was a success, Welchons soon experienced his first in a series of setbacks. Less than six months after the procedure, a new spot was detected on the top of his left foot. Once again, Welchons would need surgery to remove the new tumor.
The multiple operations took a toll on him physically, and they also prevented Welchons from driving his prized Camaro. The car has a manual transmission and, while his foot recovered, he was unable to operate the clutch.
Following the second procedure, Welchons enjoyed nearly three years of clean scans, and his family hoped his cancer team had been able to contain the disease. But in the spring of 2017, Buchbinder discovered two new spots: one on his right foot and the other in his right lung.
This time around, Buchbinder decided to forgo surgery and instead placed Welchons on a regimen of the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab. The drug works by blocking the interaction between a protective mechanism of cancer cells (PD-L1) and T-cells (PD-1), allowing the immune system to target and attack the tumor. Months after beginning treatment, Welchons was in remission — and has been so ever since.
Making time for family
No longer restricted by his cancer, Welchons has spent a good portion of the last two years traveling the country. Most of the time, it’s with the purpose of visiting family and attending his grandchildren’s weddings. With seven children, 19 grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren (and counting), he doesn’t expect his schedule to free up anytime soon.
“My daughters keep me going,” says Welchons. “I take every chance I have to visit them and spend time with my family.”
And of course, he’s also back to driving his Camaro.