Michael Pilaar was 17 when he was diagnosed with melanoma, and only 19 years old when he died. Michael’s mother Elizabeth shares a confronting account of her loved son’s battle with this terrible disease, in the hope that it will help spread the word that melanoma can strike at any age, and that it can kill our young people.
Michael grew up in Rotorua and his journey with melanoma began with a small mole on his left calf. It had been there for years, but Elizabeth noticed it was changing colour and it appeared to grow lumpy. Elizabeth says, “’To be honest, it took us too long to do anything about it; we should have acted earlier. None of us really understood the dangers of melanoma; Michael was so young, I just never thought it would be something so serious.
“My sister Fiona who is a specialist at Starship Hospital encouraged us to get it checked out. After seeing our GP, we were referred to the hospital to have it cut out, and we were shocked to learn that Michael had melanoma. They removed his lymph nodes, and one had a very small presence of cancer in it. The doctors said that they didn’t know whether or not the cancer would come back, so we got on with our lives, assuming he would be fine.
“A few months later in early 2016 we had a 10-day family trip in the South Island, primarily to walk the Routeburn Track. That turned out to be the last major hike we would do with Michael. We created some wonderful memories which we are very thankful for now.
“By Easter Michael began complaining of a sore back. We never thought for a minute that it was the cancer, but the pain grew and one night in May it was so bad Michael and I ended up in Rotorua ED at 2am. After tests and a CT scan we got the devastating news that Michael’s cancer had come back, with tumours around his body. At that point we knew his prognosis was grim and our whole focus shifted to doing whatever we could to help him. After hearing the diagnosis that his cancer had returned, Michael turned to me and said, “Don’t worry Mum, I’ve already had a good life” – and he meant it.
“Nothing can really prepare you for news like that as a family. However, while we knew it was serious, we never thought the worst would happen. Michael was eligible to participate in a clinical drug trial, and over the next eight months we did all we could to fight the cancer. Unfortunately, because Michael was young, the cancer was especially aggressive, and in March of the following year we were told there was nothing more that could be done for Michael medically,” says Elizabeth.
“Michael was just too young to die; he had great hopes and dreams.”
Michael passed away three months later, on the 23rd of June 2017, just 12 months after he was told the cancer had come back. Elizabeth was with him when he died and recalls standing over him afterwards pleading with him to ‘just breathe’. It was the worst day of the close-knit family’s lives.
“Michael had a very strong Christian faith and was determined to be positive and live his life to the fullest. On the day we heard the news that there was nothing more to help him medically, he went to the movies with his father and brother. When people came around to visit him, he very quickly asked how they were doing, deflecting attention from himself; he was always thinking about others, and his positive attitude and belief that he would be okay kept the whole family positive.
“Where there is life, there is hope, and through the final three months of Michael’s life, that’s what we hung on to. Even at the end, he was still planning what computer he was going to get when he got better. However, he wasn’t completely unrealistic, and he said if he didn’t get better, he wanted his younger siblings Anna and Jonathan to have his phone and computer, even sharing the passwords with them.
“He was a wonderful musician and planned to go to Victoria University to study music. He played nearly every instrument from the drums to the cello and pipe organ and communicated powerfully with others through his music.
“We want to make sure that Michael is remembered, and as part of this we established a music fund in his name. After a year of fund-raising, we had an investment that enables us to offer music scholarships to several young people annually from now on. It’s one way of keeping his memory alive, and I know that if he had lived he would have gone on to do wonderful things with his music; through this fund other young people will have support to do the things Michael will never have the chance to.
“Michael’s death was very confronting for his peers. We chose a simple pine coffin for him, and we had streams of his friends through the house who drew on his coffin and decorated it. The message I want to tell young people is that they should protect their skin from the sun and that melanoma can be cured if it is caught early, but you need to be vigilant,” says Elizabeth.
Elizabeth hopes that sharing Michael’s story will prevent the same thing from happening to another family. After Michael’s death Elizabeth visited most of the secondary schools in Rotorua, talking to assemblies about the dangers of melanoma. “I just want to encourage young people to take responsibility for their health and to get any changes to their skin checked out immediately; don’t wait, it could cost you your life.”