No matter what age or point in life, experiencing the “C” word – cancer – is always something scary. For me, that came at the age of 25 when I was diagnosed with Melanoma. I had gone to visit the dermatologist for a baseline skin check and to get an opinion on a spot on my leg. The spot on my leg was fine but a spot on my back that I was completely unaware of was not. I didn’t know at that moment that this one little word – melanoma – would mean my life was forever changed.
My dermatologist assured me we had caught it early (I was lucky – my early detection means I was only Stage 1B) and that I would most likely not have to worry about it once I had the offending mole removed. It was taken off and I promptly put it out of my head until my follow up 3 weeks later. The dermatologist informed me that they hadn’t cleared the margins on my back and upon doing a further inspection, they found another questionable spot on my hip. The meant this new spot (which turned out to be another Melanoma) was excised and more tissue was removed around the location of my original spot.
Despite being completely calm and at ease upon my first diagnosis (I figured it was a fluke and just something to be done and forget about – ha!), this follow up and subsequent excision shook me. It forced me to acknowledge that this was something that had to be taken seriously. I also felt completely betrayed by my own body – how could this happen to me? Why was my own skin my biggest adversary?
Partially because I wasn’t totally comfortable with my initial derm and partially as a means to attempt to gain back a little control of myself and my own path, I decided the best course of action would be to go crazy researching and bring any follow up questions I had back to my dermatologist. My fears were not abated once I started hunting online. . .in fact, it made everything seem scarier! I really would suggest that people make their top priority finding a doctor they are comfortable with, seek second opinions if desired and THEN go online if that desire is still there. Melanoma is no joke and countless families can share their stories of lost loved ones of all ages.
Luckily, that was all the treatment needed. Today – May 8th 2015 – marks two years NED, or no evidence of disease and what an interesting few years it’s been. I still need to go back to visit my dermatologist multiple times a year. I also spot check myself at least once a month and ask those closest to me to keep an eye on spots that feel new or different. My active battle with the beast is won but it doesn’t mean it’s over. This is going to be my reality for my entire life and something that I have to stay diligent over. How else has my life changed in the past few years?
The fear is always there. In between check ups with my derm, it can be easy to put melanoma in the back of my mind and I do for the most part. However, any time I see something new/different on my skin OR prepare for a check up OR wait for the results from a biopsy, there’s a little ball of anxiety in my stomach. What if I develop a new cancerous mole? What if I don’t catch it early?
I’m EVER vigilant about my SPF. I definitely don’t fear the sun. I love being outside and I’ve written this peace from the beautiful Dominican Republic but I make sure that part of my morning routine involves putting on SPF no matter where I am. If I’m heading outside, that means layers of it and bringing more with me to layer on every two hours.
I have little to no patience for people who flaunt their indoor tanning to me. I’m not asking friends and family to tip toe around me and I’m extremely open to any questions people have about melanoma but I don’t want to know about it or see it if you frequent tanning booths. I’m not going to lecture or confront, but it probably will earn you a spot on my shit list.
Ignorance abounds. Something I’ve heard countless times since my initial diagnosis is some form of “Well thank goodness it’s just skin cancer.” First of all, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, melanoma kills nearly 10,000 people in the US annually. Secondly, melanoma can be EXTREMLY fast moving and aggressive and spread to other organs throughout the body. Finally, for those diagnosed with melanoma, there is a constant vigilance required to make sure that no new cancers develop or reoccur. I’ve become a walking fact book and now try to help educate others and encourage them to get scanned instead of simply getting annoyed.
I wish I hadn’t tried to hide my scars. My original dermatologist specializes in cosmetic dermatology and he had never had a patient as young as me with melanoma before. When he offered to laser my scar to make it less noticeable, newly diagnosed me was like YES. Now, in hindsight, I kind of wish I hadn’t. That was my battle mark. It was a physical demonstration of something brutal that I overcame and I wish I still had it. I feel like this is also the place to say that upon getting a skin cancer diagnosis, a person should make sure they get a derm who specializes in THAT particular type of cancer as opposed to something else. Priorities, ya know?
Having a dermatologist that you are comfortable with is EVERYTHING! And I do mean everything. I was not at all comfortable with my initial derm even though he was the one who diagnosed me. I would leave his office feeling woefully anxious, overwhelmed and insecure that my scans were through enough to catch something new. I did a little research and made a switch and I couldn’t be happier with my decision. My new doctor and I have a much better dialogue and I feel good about my visits (well as good as one can feel about them). She asks me if there is anything I want checked out. She uses a hand held microscope to check moles we are keeping an eye on. She spends a lot of time going through my hair and over my scalp. Don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion or to seek out a derm with a specialty in melanoma. This is YOUR battle and you have the right to get yourself the best treatment and care possible.
Having discovered a community helped tremendously. When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t personally know too many other people living with skin cancer (my mom also has it but ours are different). I definitely didn’t know anyone my age – or anyone without the most common risk factors. I joined a Facebook group for Melanoma warriors and their caregivers and it helped SO much because as supportive as my loved ones were once I started telling them, they couldn’t actually empathize with what I was going through. Has it been hard to see some of my fellow warriors become angels? Oh yes but having this tight knit support system is something I definitely wouldn’t trade in.
This was actually surprisingly challenging for me to write. I’m not totally convinced that I gave it the voice I intended but it’s real. May marks Skin Cancer Awareness Month. I never had a major burn nor am I super fair and I had melanoma. Learning your skin and getting your skin checked is the best and easiest way to stave off a nightmare and I earnestly encourage all of you to go get a check this month. It takes 15 minutes and makes a world of difference.