Talent, hard work, and more than a little luck earned 34-year-old actor and dancer Damian Thompson a thriving career on stage and on screen. But Thompson feared his luck had dried up when, in October 2014, he learned that the mole on his thigh was in fact melanoma, the most lethal type of skin cancer.
Like many moments he experienced before and after, it was something he never saw coming.
I never expected to move to America.
“When I was little, uncles and other family members would visit Jamaica from the States. I had a childish vision that the streets were made of gold in America. I actually believed that. When I was nine, we ended up in Miami.”
I never expected acting to fix my stutter.
“In Florida, I was put into a speech class to control my Jamaican accent. From that class, I actually started stuttering. Around that time, I began taking a theatre class and had to memorize an entire speech. After the performance, the teacher pulled me aside and said, ‘Do you realize you did the whole speech without stuttering once?’”
I never expected to get into a performing arts school.
“In my senior year of high school, things took off! That teacher encouraged me to audition for a performing arts school. That’s how I got into theatre. I danced with a professional company. I won awards and scholarships. I was very, very lucky.”
I never expected to need a dermatologist.
“I started a show, Angels in America, in Delaware last August. The stress made me break out in hives. The hives were going down on their own, so I didn’t think I’d need to see a dermatologist, but the other cast members convinced me to make an appointment.”
I never expected my mole to be a problem.
“I had this mole on my thigh. And for the last five years, people were like, ‘You should get that checked out.’ And I told them I’d had it since I was born, and that it was fine. Since I was at the dermatologist, I figured I might as well get it checked out. He said it looked abnormal and suggested a biopsy.”
I never expected to get melanoma.
“I went back in to get the results and he told me I had melanoma. I started crying a little bit. I just didn’t think it could happen. I thought: ‘Why me? What did I do that was wrong?’ My melanoma was stage 0. I was lucky that I caught it. It was one of those things that I wouldn’t have ever gotten checked. I thought it didn’t happen to people of color. It doesn’t run in my family. I actually thought I’d had the mole since I was born. So it was by luck that I had it checked.”
I never expected to need dermatologic surgery.
“My friends helped me find Dr. Hooman Khorasani at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
I didn’t need chemo or anything, because they caught it early. A lot of the mole and skin were taken out and I had to get two layers of stitching… Dr. Khorasani was, for lack of a better word, “fatherly.” He knew I was not used to surgery, so while we were in there, he kept talking to me and easing me through it.”
I never expected to have a Bob Marley connection.
“When Dr. Khorasani was operating on me, he told me that Bob Marley had melanoma on his toe, and died from it. Even being from Jamaica, I didn’t know this. So it’s just crazy that, a couple days after I got out of surgery, my agent called and said, ‘They’re doing this new Bob Marley musical.’ I was invited to be in the production a few days later.”
I never expected to be unable to walk.
“After the surgery, you find you can’t do much. My friends hung out and took care of me, and kept my spirits up. I was pretty much hopping around for about four weeks, even after the stitches came out. I could walk a little, but I couldn’t go up and down the stairs or take the subway.”
I never expected my leg to feel numb for so long.
“My leg was numb for months. Even now, there’s a slight irritation when I press on it. When they cut, they cut through nerves. I didn’t know the nerves could regenerate. I was afraid it would stay numb.”
I never expected to have a scar from skin cancer.
“Dr. Khorasani is a certified plastic surgeon as well, so the scar is not as bad as I thought it would be. I was expecting something much worse. It’s a dark area, a 4-inch scar. I have the option in a few months of getting a cream to lighten it.”
I never expected people of color to get skin cancer.
“I’ve never known any people of color who’ve had skin cancer. It’s funny, to this day, every single person I talk about this to says, ‘Come on. Shut up.’ No one would take me seriously. When I got the results and called my friends, they thought I was joking. Even when I went to a regular dermatologist after the surgery, she was surprised — all the doctors came in.”
I never expected to be raising awareness about skin cancer.
“I’m doing interviews for skin cancer month, to bring awareness to people of color. Most people of color who get moles don’t go to see a doctor. It’s not part of the culture. But if they see me, a regular guy with dark skin who still got melanoma, they’ll know it’s possible and maybe go get it checked out.”
I never expected to be fearless.
“We’re in a culture where, if you’re black, you don’t think about getting sunburn. I’m very aware now and more conscious about putting on sunblock. And I’m checking my body more. Now I know the tools, know what to look for, and know how to prevent cancer. Before, I had no fear because I was ignorant. Now, I have no fear because I’m educated.”
Damian Thompson is currently in rehearsals for Marley, a musical about reggae legend Bob Marley. Thompson plays Bunny Wailer, percussionist with Marley’s band, Bob Marley and the Wailers. The show is scheduled to open at Baltimore Center Stage in May 2015.