There’s no easy way to digest bad news when you get it, and no easy way to write about it, so I’ll just spit it out: In early June, after what I thought would be a regular dermatologist checkup, I was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma on my right leg. The irregularly shaped mole had been there for years, and I should have had it checked sooner. People warned me. I was lazy. I made excuses. I didn’t know squat about skin cancer.
Malignant melanoma is not the most common skin cancer. You’re more likely to have a basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma—neither of which is optimal, but if you’re going to have skin cancer, these options don’t frequently spread or take lives. My parents have had these removed. Not fun—but not fatal.
My kind, on the other hand, is rarer and more serious. Melanomas whisk cancer silently to the lungs, liver, and brain. Even when you catch them early and prognosis is good—which, I’ll let you know right now, was my experience—they can come back. They kill people. This fact sticks with me and always will.
After my diagnosis, I spent a few weeks in awful limbo. Though I found out my lesion was thin (0.25mm, Clarks level II, all relatively good things), I still had Stage I cancer. I escaped the need for immunotherapy, but I was immediately scheduled for an inpatient surgery at a dermatology-oncology clinic in Dallas to remove a one-centimeter margin around the area. (And just so you know, when they say one centimeter, that doesn’t include the three or four they cut just so they can sew you up again in a straight line.)
I spent seven days waiting for that surgery, wondering what they would find out, scouring the Internet for facts. I wanted to find people who had gone through exactly what I was going through. I wanted to hear how they turned out. I needed details. After all, I had just turned 35, and I had three kids to raise. I craved reassurance online. I couldn’t get enough information.
Or so I thought.
I learned a lot in June. I learned that, tragically, a lot of women my age with young kids have died from melanoma, while others undergo month after month of surgery and chemotherapy. I learned that my stupid teenage desire to slather Crisco and baby oil over my body in the quest for the perfect Texas tan could have killed me (and might still). I learned that melanomas can appear anywhere—under fingernails, on your eyes, under your hair, even in your rear end—and not just where you’ve been burned. I learned that zinc oxide is the best sunscreen you can use, and you should wear it daily, all over, regardless of weather or season. I learned about the pros and cons of Mohs surgery, wide local excisions, and sentinel lymph node biopsies. And I learned that my need for facts simply couldn’t be satisfied by online medical reference sites and random Internet stories. What I wanted was to know my own future, and no wiki or blog out there could tell me that.
Sometimes, I realized, you just need to have your own experiences. You need to let your reality wash over you, and understand that what you are going through is never going to be the same as what someone else went through. We can share commonalities and benefit from those exchanges, but ultimately we are all unique. Sometimes, you just need to let go, be vulnerable and patient, and then deal. That’s called life.
If you know me at all, you’ll know this was a very difficult realization for me. I’m, of course, addicted to my computer and to social networking of all kinds. To accept that this would do me no good took a lot of meditation on my part. I appreciated the well wishes of friends and shared my happenings on Facebook—but in the end, I had to retreat. In fact, I found myself immersed in anything I could find that had nothing to do with skin or with cancer or with people asking me how I was doing. I didn’t want to talk about it. Not because it wasn’t real, but because it was too real.
Thus far, they tell me I have been lucky. The margins of the area removed during surgery were all clear. I think I have something like a 93 percent five-year survival rate. I spent a few days on crutches, and a few weeks ensconced in a bit of baffled bewilderment. Needless to say, June wasn’t so great a month for me after all.
I now proudly bear a six-inch scar on my inner right calf that will forever remind me, every morning, to get up and put sunscreen on myself and my kids. I won’t preach beyond that, but just understand that this simple act—if you let it become a habit—could actually save a life. Maybe your son’s or daughter’s. Maybe your own. And be sure your whole family has annual dermatology checkups. These, too, could be life-saving.
Right now, as I type, I’m on vacation in the mountains. I’m savoring every day before school starts up again, even cold and rainy ones like today, but I’m still finding it hard to do something as simple as take a hike without wondering what my future holds. What is the sun—which used to feel warm and comforting—doing as it penetrates my skin? Is my sunscreen really effective? Are there other lesions on me, growing quietly? Will I see my kids grow up?
When these questions threaten to overtake my good spirits, I don’t turn to my computer for solace. I’m done Googling that stuff. Instead, I find myself walking harder and faster, taking more uphill excursions, laughing more with my children, hugging more, breathing deeper, smiling. It’s okay to strive to be informed—medical patients have an obligation to know what’s going on in their treatments—but remember that there’s a fine line between knowledge and overdose. Fight the good fight simply by being yourself. By living.
Take care, moms.