In May of 2001, just a few short months after my hysterectomy, I was diagnosed with Melanoma. Yep, that’s right skin cancer… the scary kind… the kind that kills you. Before I proceed I will say that I was very lucky and caught mine quite early; however, because I was still recovering emotionally from my hysterectomy this added a cruel weight to that burden.
It all started when I noticed a new freckle on the front of my right shoulder. I’m fair skinned with lots of freckles so I didn’t really think much of it. A Dr of mine had removed moles in the past but they were always benign and nothing to worry about. So it was with this false sense of security that I approached this new little speck. Besides, I’d seen those nasty pictures they post in Dr’s offices showing those really ugly-looking moles that were cancerous. This didn’t look anything like those. It was small, perfectly round, and very light in color. I had a lot on my plate anyway and so it was easy to dismiss. I was still in the throes of OCD and Bulimia and just starting my journey of emotional healing, so a new freckle seemed… well small… in comparison.
It didn’t stay that way for long. The first clue I had that something might be amiss was that this little unassuming freckle grew at an alarming rate. We’ll call this new little friend, which held my life in its hands, the “little freckle that could.” I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I state that within two weeks it progressed from a little speck to a full-fledged mole about the size and shape of an erasure at the top of a pencil. Hmmm, not good, but remember that during this time I wasn’t exactly in a stellar frame of mind so I pushed it the back burner where it stayed for a few more weeks until finally there was some divine intervention.
I was put on a small project at work which placed me in the path of a coworker whom I spoke with at least two or three times a day. To this day I’m still not sure how we even ended up on the topic of skin, but I truly believe that she and I received a Heavenly nudge. She began telling me that she had been recovering from skin cancer, melanoma to be precise. She told me that it all started with a small freckle that grew very quickly. As she shared her story with me I felt that freckle on my back burner start to let off some steam. Suddenly I interrupted her and in a moment of absolute social awkwardness I yanked my shirt down and said, “Look at this, what do you think?” To her credit it only took about 10 seconds for her to recover from my shocking flash, “You’d better get that looked at, here is my dermatologist’s card.”
This time in my life is still a bit foggy; I was going insane after all, so the details are unclear. Somehow I made the decision to go see this Dr, who luckily happened to be on my insurance plan, again divine intervention I’m certain. Being a specialist she sported a very busy schedule which usually required several months of waiting if you were a new patient. Low and behold, she’d had a cancellation the following week so I took the opening and went. One look at my little friend and she said, “That’ll have to come off today.” I was still feeling pretty nonchalant about the whole thing even after she kept a little chunk of my flesh as a souvenir. There are perks to being in emotional turmoil; it makes you kind of immune or ignorant to added stress. When you have a full plate things just start spilling off into oblivion. So it was with my “little freckle that could.”
I left her office that day with instructions on how to treat my small, sad wound and didn’t think another thing about it. Until, that is, about three days later I noticed that it was nowhere near beginning to heal. It never scabbed over. In fact, it was still weepy and oozing. “Weird,” I thought. I mean, three days, you’d think it would at least form a scab or something. The answer arrived a week and a half later in the form of a phone call in the early evening hours.
I saw the Dr’s name and number on my cell phone around 6:30 pm and thought it strange that their office would be calling so late. This just goes to show how disconnected I was from the possibilities of the circumstances at hand. Imagine my surprise when I answered and the Dr’s voice came over the line, not her nurse. She told me that the pathology report had returned on my biopsy. There was a beat of silence before she asked if I could come into her office that evening. This will tell you just how “out of it” I was after my hysterectomy because my response was anything but appropriate toward the situation. I replied, “It’s been a long day, can’t I just make a follow-up appointment in a week or two?” Again, silence over the line. At this point it dawns on me that she may be trying to tell me something… something unpleasant. She starts to speak when I cut across her, “What did the pathology say?” She responds by stating that she usually doesn’t like to talk about things like this over the phone.
Finally it hits me with full force that something is obviously wrong. I begin to insist that she just tell me what the report says, at this point I have a pretty good idea anyway. She concedes and says that it was skin cancer, melanoma. She goes on to tell me how dangerous it is, how it can spread very quickly, and that she needs to perform a larger biopsy as quickly as possible… and all I hear from there is blah, blah, blah. I don’t like to play the “poor me” card, but I’m gonna here because my first thought was, “Are you serious? After what I’ve just been through? Loosing Julie, loosing my uterus… loosing my mind?!”
I’ll be the first to admit that, in part, I probably brought this on myself. I love the sun. As a kid I worshiped it and didn’t think twice about sunscreen. I loved the sun-kissed look of summer, the warmth on my skin. I have always thrived in the heat. In high school I started using a tanning bed because I wanted a little “color” for prom but quickly found that it helped with the endometriosis cramping and my psoriasis rashes as well. As an adult it became less about getting any color and more about managing my skin rashes and alleviating endo pain. Needless to say I used tanning beds a lot in my late teens early twenties. When the cramping was at its worst a tanning bed felt like a giant heating pad. It felt good to be “baked” from the inside out. There was nothing like it when it came to providing relief from the constant pain.
In an instant my entire outlook toward the sun was forced to change. I snapped back to the conversation at hand in time to hear the Dr say that she insist I come in the following afternoon. This type of cancer was too aggressive to put off the procedure she was suggesting. I numbly agreed, hung up the phone and cried. Then I stomped around my apartment as the anger set in. I was so mad! Mad at life, mad at endo, mad that Julie was gone, mad at the sun, mad… mad… mad. I could hardly contain the rage, I started throwing things and yelling at the top of my lungs. Then I started feeling sorry for myself. I just kept thinking, “Why am I being asked to endure so much, this is like pouring salt in the wound!” I remember repeating several times out loud, “Come on! Come ON!!!! SERIOUSLY, COME ON!!!!”
I called a good friend of mine and she insisted on coming with me the next day to the Dr. I felt a little guilty, they weren’t going to put me under and from what the Dr said this wasn’t going to be too bad. She was going to numb me up and then essentially “dig” out a large chunk of flesh. The purpose of this was to examine the tissue surrounding that stupid little freckle and see how far the cancer had spread. We were looking for something called a “clear margin” meaning that she had to go deep enough to where she found a margin of tissue that showed no traces of cancer before I was in the clear. Once the time came I was so happy to have my friend with me. It was actually much more traumatic than I thought. She numbed me up pretty well, but when you’re digging out that much flesh the numbing only goes so far. I didn’t dare look but my friend watched while she held my hand. Later she told me that the Dr had cut deep down into the layers of my shoulder and then used something that looked similar to a large spoon to remove the tissue. I was told that she removed a lump of flesh about the same size as the pit of a small peach. Ick! I had two layers of subcutaneous stitches and then several stitches on the surface.
The pathology would take another week even though she rushed it. All bandaged up and emotionally spent, yet again; I went home and promptly went straight to bed. Pins and needles are the best way to describe the week that followed. The Dr was very optimistic because we caught the mole in the very earliest stages. While melanoma can kill you it is also very curable if you catch it early. Long story short, the week passed and I returned for a follow-up visit to discover that we had caught it early enough and she was able to find a clear margin.
What a relief. Or at least it should have been except now I was told that my relationship with the sun would never be the same again. I call my sweet Dr the “Sun Nazi.” If you’re a Seinfeld fan you’ll understand where this comes from. She reminded me of the “Soup Nazi”, there is a link to You Tube, but essentially every time I went to her I heard “No Sun for You!” She was a cute little woman with a heavy German accent and she made no apologies about the incessant lectures she gave me covering the evils of sun exposure. She would go on and on about how the sun was my enemy, I should always wear sunscreen, and never again should I leave the house without a way to protect myself. She told me that after the first instance of finding melanoma the risk of another occurrence is very high so I would need to see her every three months for two years following this first finding. I can still remember her actually leaning in to smell my skin at every appointment to verify that I was wearing sunscreen. She’s lucky I have a good sense of humor because, rather than be offended, I found this highly entertaining. Once, I purposely ate a ton of garlic the day before to see if she would flinch. I could tell she was trying not to react when she took a big whiff near my neck. I kept a straight face for as long as I could as I watched her brows come together, then her nose scrunch up followed by a slight pucker around her mouth. I couldn’t contain it any longer and started laughing. I told her what I’d done and that became our running joke in the visits to follow. Those first two years were brutal. She would take biopsies of new or changing moles every time I was in her office. I’m surprised I didn’t loose 50 lbs of weight from the sheer number of biopsies they took. Luckily everything came back benign.
The hardest part, for me, other than the emotional trauma of it all, are the sacrifices I’ve had to make in regards to the sunshine. I know that sounds silly, especially considering everything else I face, but it has been difficult. I love the sun and the way it makes me feel. It is not surprising that sun exposure is the most effective tool against my psoriasis as well so I’ve had to start medications that suppress that instead. I have to take Vitamin D because I can’t get it from the sun and between the RA and Crohns it is difficult to maintain a healthy level. The most ironic development? Sunscreens don’t work on me. I have tried everything. I’m allergic to most brands that you can buy in your local drug store and everything beyond that proves ineffective. I am currently monitored by a wonderful team of Drs at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and every six months we have a discussion about the latest and greatest sunscreen products. Nothing seems to work and they can’t figure out why. At their suggestion I started using this really expensive sun block that chemically bonds to your skin. I know it works because I put it on my kids once in the morning and after 8 hours at the lake they are still lily-white. Me? Not so much. I can apply it every hour, on the hour, and I’m still a lobster at the end of the day. I won’t lie, I have my rebellious summers when I think, “Forget it, it is too much bother.” But then I have to face down my team of Drs and listen to their lectures and warnings. So I try to be a good girl and do my best to avoid the sun. All I have to say is that sometimes life just keeps throwing curve balls and your only defense is to run for cover and where a wide-brimmed hat!
I count my lucky stars that things weren’t worse. I don’t think I would have survived emotionally had it not been such a minor occurrence. It would not have been a minor occurrence had I continued to ignore that ridiculous little freckle. I maintain that I had help from above because I was already dealing with so much that I would never have addressed it otherwise. It goes to show you that we do have a loving God who looks out for us. He knew what I was faced with and understood that I needed help. Even in our deepest darkest trials he will find a way to show us his love if we are willing to recognize it.
So when you see me at the pool and wonder at my extremely pallid complexion, now you know! Skin cancer is not my friend! Pale and pasty is the new “it” baby! Embrace it, love it, flaunt it, you know you want to. Besides, who needs to look like an old, wrinkled, hunk of leather anyway, not me!