The Cleveland couple said things in their life have often come in twos, and Rick’s second bout with cancer is no different.
“We dated twice — broke up and got back together — got married twice, but never divorced, and we have two children,” Gina said. “So everything we’re going through now is about second chances.”
Gina, a Cleveland native, and Rick, who moved to Cleveland from Maine when he was in the seventh grade, both graduated from Bradley Central High School.
“I was a year ahead of him and I didn’t even know him,” she said.
“I never knew her either,” Rick said.
“A year after I graduated I was looking through my Year Book and I saw this picture and it was him. It stayed in my mind for years because he was doing this funny pose,” Gina recalled.
Rick added, “I had actually seen her in a car going the opposite way at a traffic light and I was like, ‘Wow!’”
Although their paths crossed at least twice before they officially met, it was at a local restaurant and through a mutual friend that the two eventually became one.
“I saw him across a crowded room — just saw his blonde hair — and told a friend I’d like to meet him,” Gina said. “So they grabbed him and introduced us.”
The very first date was at Rick’s grandmother’s house, which left a vague and less-than-romantic impression on the two. But the next thing she knew Rick was inviting Gina on a kayak adventure down the Ocoee River. Their second date made a lasting impression on the young couple.
“I don’t swim. I don’t like the water. But I went down the Ocoee River trusting he was going to take care of me,” Gina confessed. “Before we went we kissed in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot in Copperhill. I know my jaw dropped. It was amazing.”
“I felt the same thing,” Rick admits. “I knew this was something special.”
“So now when we go to different cities and we see a Piggly Wiggly, we’ll pull in the parking lot and kiss,” Gina said.
Rick said Gina is the only date he ever took down the Ocoee River and it was smooth sailing for a while. But the couple’s budding romance ran into some rocky waters and they ended up putting their relationship on hold. In time their love brought them together again for a second time, only this time Gina was prepared to ask the right question to change everything.
“I was graduating from nursing school and I asked him where do you think this is going?”
“I said, ‘I think it’s going pretty good!” he said, laughing. “Typical guy answer.”
Rick had joined the U.S. Navy Reserves. He was about to go to Desert Storm for five months. But no personal or national conflict would prevent them from satisfying their second chance at happiness. So before he left for Desert Storm, Rick married Gina in Gatlinburg on Jan. 29, 1991.
Upon his return, they decided to marry again in an elegant wedding at Westwood Baptist Church that same year. The happy couple went on to have two sons, Camden, 18, and Kimsey, 16.
What had become a storybook romance, however, soon became a classic case of courage in the face of a new threat. It was Aug. 31, 2009, when Rick and Gina realized they would need another chance at a healthy life together.
Rick explained, “I had a small mole on my back that started to grow rapidly. I was at the beach and I reached back and noticed it. When I went to the doctor he said it was no big deal. Then they called me two weeks later and said it was, in fact, a big deal. It was cancer.”
Rick had the most dangerous type of skin cancer — melanoma, which causes 75 percent of deaths related to skin cancer. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, if melanoma is deeper than 4 mm or has spread to the lymph nodes, you are more likely to have the cancer spread to other tissues and organs, which can prove life-threatening.
“They thought it was stage 3 at that point after several surgeries,” said Gina, who was a registered nurse at the time. “They thought they got it all. But in September of 2010, he had another scan and it was everywhere — brain, bone, liver, spleen, muscle — pretty much everywhere.”
“People have a misconception about melanoma,” Rick said. “They think it’s just a skin cancer. You cut it off and keep on trucking. It is that way until it spread to your lymph nodes. Then it’s going everywhere. It goes to the brain and spreads rapidly. I have some tumors but mine is mainly microscopic.”
Up until March of this year there was only one drug that doctors used to treat Rick’s melanoma and he had to be in intensive care to get it.
“He went through all of that,” Gina said. “It worked initially but then it started progressing even with the treatments. Now they have at least three new drugs designed to treat melanoma.”
The couple said everything is currently stable due to the latest medicine Rick is taking.
“The medicine he is on now is keeping it at bay,” Gina said. “Some areas have regressed. Some areas are stable. But none of them have grown.”
“The good thing is that through radiation and God’s help I got rid of the melanoma in my brain,” Rick said. “It’s gone. Through some of the other medicines I got at Vanderbilt, I got it out of my bones. Right now it’s microscopic. It’s set up in my chest, my spleen, there are some lung issues, but my last PET scan showed in a couple of places it had shrunk and other places it has stabilized. It has not continued to grow. ‘Stage 4 in limbo’ is what I call it.”
“It’s a miracle. It really is a miracle,” Gina said.
“I really feel like I am,” Rick said as tears swelled in his eyes. “When we first started all this, the doctor came in and said, ‘You have three to six months.’ That’s when everything starts moving a little differently in your mind.”
It is also when the family started to move even closer to God, pray for strength and wisdom and decided to seek a second opinion at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville.
The results, according to Rick and Gina, were all positive. Surrounding themselves with positive energy, positive thoughts, positive people and a medical team who were positive they could make a difference in their fight for a second chance in life and love as a family, made all the difference.
They cite James 4:8 to “draw close to God and He will draw close to you,” as a key to their success in marriage as well as their success so far in winning the battle against cancer.
“The doctors told me at Vanderbilt that every cancer is as individual as the person and is treated differently. They were so full of hope and always so positive. So never give up! Medicine can do what it can do, but this has taught me a lot about myself and my faith,” Rick said.
“It’s amazing that through all of this we can still joke about it,” said Gina, who works for an insurance company and teaches part time at Cleveland State. “It’s changed him a little. He’s a little more serious and I’m a little more light-hearted.”
The close-knit couple attributes their success to the prayers and support of family and friends. They said they welcome the prayers of the community on their behalf. Not only has their ordeal made them closer to their God and to one another, but Rick and Gina said they are appreciating every aspect of life and take nothing for granted.
“Just look up — even for a minute — look up and listen to the wind,” Rick said. “Take time to enjoy life. We get so involved we forget to look up and enjoy the little things.”
“Everything we need is right there in the Scriptures,” Gina said. “We’re thankful for this second chance — this miracle — each and every day.”