Six months ago, tomorrow, on May 2, 2013, I was diagnosed with skin cancer.
I had gotten a referral to The Polley Clinic (a dermatologist’s office in Fayetteville) to have two tiny rough patches of skin on my forehead and temple looked at. I constantly picked at them and wondered if there was any way to be rid of them. No problem, my dermatologist said. He froze them and said they would fall off within a few days.
Did I have any other concerns about my skin? I mentioned that the backs of my arms were always red and a little bumpy and it made me self-conscious. No problem, my dermatologist said. He prescribed a foam that would put that skin back to normal.
Any other concerns? Well, I guess I hadn’t had a skin check in a while and I did have a sort of big mole on my abdomen. He had me lift my shirt and took a look at it.
I hadn’t thought twice about this mole. I had been told moles can change with pregnancy. And anyway, the changes had been so subtle I hardly noticed them. But why I hadn’t thought this mole, with all the warning signs for skin cancer, deserved any prior attention is beyond reason.
He suggested removing it right away, that it looked suspicious but was most likely just an abnormal mole. Had I received a lot of sun exposure as a child? Any one-off bad sunburns? Spent any time in a tanning booth? Yes to all three. I grew up spending my summers on the beach. Even though my parents were diligent with sunscreen, I had surely forgotten to reapply a handful of times and ended up with a few burns. And in nothing but a display of utter vanity, I had gone tanning a few times during my freshman year of college and again before my wedding, “to get just a little color.”
I was to return in 4-6 weeks for the results of the sample. So when the called me after only three and a half weeks and asked me to come in the next day, I knew something wasn’t right. Andrew took off work to go to the appointment with me, and we left Madeline with my neighbor. We had thought they would tell me I had pre-cancerous cells or at the worst maybe a basal cell carcinoma (we Googled the night before).
We sat in the office in denial. Maybe it was just nothing. Surely it was nothing! The doctor came in.
“The results came back, and it is malignant melanoma.”
I had malignant melanoma in situ, meaning it was still confined to the epidermis and had not spread. The doctor performed a surgery right there in the office to remove more skin, to confirm the diagnosis and ensure the margins were free of cancerous cells. My initial shock quickly waned and fear set in. Had I not gone to the dermatologist when I did, we may not have caught the cancer until it was much more progressed.
I am 27 years old. I have a husband and a daughter and a family. I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the life I want for myself. And it could have all been thrown away. All because being tan is considered more beautiful, and I bought into that. All because I was too lazy or ignorant to reapply sunscreen. I did this to myself, of my own neglect.
I am grateful that my cure was so easy to come by. That simple surgery turned my diagnosis day into the day I was cured of skin cancer. I left that office with stitches on my stomach and new perspective on skin care.
Before returning home, we stopped at the store to pick up 70+ sunscreen at the recommendation of my dermatologist. I spent that night shopping online for UPF sun shirts and wide-brimmed hats. I bought UPF beach umbrellas and a UPF beach tent. I texted close family and friends, reminding them to get checked. I will no longer be leaving the safety of my and my family’s skin to chance. We have too much to lose.
I check the “Skin Cancer” box now, on lists of health conditions. I see the dermatologist every three months. My stitches healed into a thick, inch-long scar. A few weeks ago, I had a steroid injected to shrink the poorly healed scar. Yesterday, a few more steroid shots. But I sort of hope the appearance of my scar doesn’t change or fade too much. Let it be a small, but ugly and permanent reminder that nothing is worth putting my health at risk.