When you're a relatively carefree nineteen-year-old, some of the last words you want to hear (or can even begin to understand) are: biopsy, malignant, melanoma, and surgery. Alas, they were the price I paid for my hobbies that weren't very well-suited for my freckled, fair skin. You know, things like laying out in the sun with baby oil and regularly hopping in tanning beds. I cringe at these thoughts and images now that I'm older and more educated on the disease (and now that I'm on the other side of the C-word), but I find the reflection necessary and helpful to spread the word to others.
My first round with malignant melanoma came from a mole on my chest that had been there for as long as I could remember. It wasn't until it started changing colors, growing in size, and becoming painful to touch that I felt worrisome about it. I ventured to my dermatologist who shaved it and said she thought it "wasn't anything too serious". Less than 48 hours later, she called me personally to drop the news.
It was cancer.
It was early, but it was cancer, and I needed surgery. She connected me with a fantastic Surgical Oncologist at UNC and we scheduled the outpatient procedure.
I don't think I felt scared or nervous until the morning of my surgery, when they discovered a few of my lymph nodes had begun "feeding off of the cancerous area" and needed to be removed. I woke up with a nearly 6-inch scar curving around my right breast and another one under my right arm. My mom drove me home where I recovered, binge-watching Disney movies and carefully nibbling Chick-Fil-A... because what else was I supposed to do?!
At my follow-up appointment soon after, my surgeon confirmed that he had gotten clear margins, that the cancer was gone, and no further treatment was required. I watched my mom breathe a sigh so big, I wondered how she had been walking around with that stuck in her chest. Now that I'm a mother, I understand.
Twice-a-year skin checks became the norm for me, as was required until I reached my 5-year-free mark, but a lot of damage had already been done. The freckles and moles continued to pop up, and I continued to have atypical things removed in fear that they were silent killers. About 6 months after I reached my first 5-year-free mark, my new (and thankfully, exceedingly thorough) dermatologist removed a mole off of my thigh. It came back as malignant melanoma. Here we go again.
Feeling frustrated that this spot had been missed by my previous dermatologist (and angry at myself for "allowing" this to happen again), I scheduled a Mohs procedure to have this spot removed. In this less-invasive surgery, thin layers of cancer-containing skin are progressively removed and examined until only cancer-free tissue remains. It requires only local anesthetic, and my cancer cells were removed in one fell swoop, performed by another phenomenal surgeon. I healed well and required no further treatments.
This past March, I reached 6 years cancer-free, but I never feel fully "free". Every freckle, every mole, every mild difference on my skin haunts me.
"Is that the one?"
"Is that the one that takes me from my husband and daughter?"
In the moments of fear, I find comfort in the knowledge that I have a wonderful team of dermatologists at my disposal and I am so much wiser about my time in the sun. I have an entire wardrobe of UPF clothing, skincare and makeup containing SPF, a fabulous collection of hats, and half a dozen different brands of sunless tanners that fulfill my "summer glow" dreams.
From here on out, you can find me in the shade, with my cotton-top little girl, slathering that sunblock on like it's my job... 'cause it is.