So, during winter break, I wrote a letter – submitted an online form – to the checkout lane fashion magazine thanking them for the article and somewhat briefly – ok brief for me – described my situation. A couple of days later, I received a person – NOT AUTOMATED – reply. The person replying indicated that she had passed my letter on to all the department heads, including the editor-in-chief. Cool! I really didn’t think anything would come of it, other than my letter maybe being published in the letters to the editor section. Boy, was I wrong!
The day my infection was confirmed, I was understandably stressed and upset, so I did what I thought was better than drinking a dozen cocktails – I took a nap. My nap times deserve their own post…I think I’ll start on that next. Anyway, when I woke from my nap, I did what I always do at the end of a nap; I checked my school email. I’m convinced that some sort of disaster is going to happen in my classroom while I’m gone. Nothing. However, I did notice a new email in my personal inbox:
I’m writing to you from (the checkout lane fashion) magazine because I’m working on a small follow-up story about our past skin cancer coverage. I loved the letter you wrote to us on December 29 and am hoping you’d be willing to answer a few follow-up questions for the story. My questions are below, and I also need your age, birthday, a picture of you (a headshot-style image would be great) and one of the mole you found, if possible. If you could please respond by the morning of Monday, February 14 I’d really appreciate it. Please let me know if you have any questions!
Seriously??? Was this really happening? This doesn’t happen to people in the real world, but it was happening to me. So, here is what I had to say:
My name is Cancer Patient. I am 37 years old. I was born December 23, 1973. I teach first grade. I am a cancer survivor.
1. What was your attitude toward tanning and being out in the sun like before you discovered the mole? Did you ever consider skin cancer a major risk to your health beforehand?
I never really thought about skin cancer. I mean, I had heard of people having skin cancer and having moles removed, but you never hear of people dying from skin cancer. You never hear about skin cancer walks. It’s not a “serious” cancer. I have had family members with breast and lung cancer. One died, one almost died. That’s serious. I was completely ignorant.
I had been to tanning beds, even worked for a tanning salon for a short time in high school, but it wasn’t something I did regularly. I was never what you would call a regular tanner. I very rarely even “laid out” in the summer. It wasn’t something that I just had to do and, quite frankly, it was boring. I can’t be bothered to just sit and do nothing and bake in the bed for ten minutes, let alone sit in the sun and do nothing all afternoon. I’m an on the go kind of girl.
In the summer time, my husband and I would go to my mother-in-law’s home on a lake and spend time on the boat and in the water. I always used SPF 30 sunscreen. See, I have a fear of looking “old.” I have been using facial moisturizers with sunscreen (Aveeno Positively Radiant Tinted Moisturizer SPF 30 is my current fave) for years. I wasn’t stupid. I knew being in the sun could cause cancer and I tried to protect myself, but I wasn’t overly concerned.
2. Describe what you were thinking as you read “(The Article)” and the accompanying mole chart in the issue of (Fashion Magazine)? What did you do afterward?
Honestly, as I read the article I was thinking, “Yeah, I know this, wear sunscreen, I know to check for irregular moles, it’s the same thing I’ve always heard.” I read the article more because I felt I should, not because I was terribly interested. Then, I saw the chart. I’m a naturally curious person and I’ll admit it, I’m fascinated by the unusual. So, as I looked across the chart of pictures I was thinking, “Oh, well, of course that’s not suspicious. Oh, well, yeah, I can see what they’re talking about, that’s not symmetrical. Oh my God. That looks just like the one on my calf!” I laid the magazine picture next to my calf and the two moles were almost identical.
I told the hubs what I had found out and he rolled his eyes at me. See, he thinks I’m a hypochondriac because he hates to go to the doctor and I go when I’m sick. So I showed him the picture and the mole. He simply said, “Then go to the doctor, that’s what you always do.” So I decided that just to spite him, I would not make a special appointment to see the doctor about it, but I would ask her about it at my annual in August.
In all honesty, when I got to my appointment, I forgot to ask her, but it was my annual and with my legs up in the stirrups, she noticed the mole.
(I then excerpted the discussion with The DR from my first blog post)
“Have you ever thought about having this removed?” she asked.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “I read a skin cancer article this summer in a magazine and there was a picture of a mole that looked exactly like this one. The article said there might be some risk associated with it. I was going to ask you about it but forgot all about it until you mentioned it just now. What do you think?”
“Well, honestly, I don’t think it’s anything,” the doctor said, “but you’re not really a ‘moley’ person, so let’s take it off and do a punch biopsy.”
I was a little concerned by the word biopsy, and apparently my face showed my concern. “It’s no big deal! We’ll do it in the office, just a little pinch,” she said. So, I scheduled the procedure for fall break week in October – I’m a first grade teacher, I don’t want to miss any time with my little people.
About a week before the procedure, I got a call saying the doctor needed to reschedule. She was going to be out of the office that week. I figured her kids were on fall break too and that they were going to do something fun. Well, if the doctor wasn’t concerned about putting it off, neither was I. I mean, the mole didn’t bother me, it didn’t hurt or itch or anything. The weather was getting cooler and I was wearing more pants. Out of sight, out of mind I guess.
I finally got around to rescheduling the procedure – on the hubs’ fortieth birthday in December. Now, I know that it might seem to be a strange choice, but his birthday was on Thursday and we had planned a party for Friday. I figured if I had it done on Thursday, I could squeeze an extra sick day to recover on Friday and get everything done before the party.
So, I went to the doctor at 9:30 am. She put me in this funky recliner kind of chair and let me watch the whole thing. I’m a teacher, naturally curious. First, she injected a numbing agent into the area around the mole. Then, she used a strange metal rod to punch into my skin and pull the mole out. She put it in a little specimen jar in some clear liquid. Then, she cauterized the area to help with the bleeding. I remember looking at the mole in the jar. It was like a tiny mushroom. Benign. Harmless.
“Looks good,” she said. “We’ll send this to the lab, but I really don’t think we’re going to find anything. It should take a week or so to get the results back.”
And so I left her office, feeling fine, no concern at all. Thinking, “that only took like 20 minutes and now I have 2 days off to enjoy!” I thought about it off and on over the next week, but after a week of hearing nothing, I kind of forgot all about it.
On December 13, we had that rare and wonderful occurrence that teachers and students dream of – a snow day! I spent the day in my pjs watching mindless daytime television. Then, the phone rang. I answered it and it was my doctor. The doctor. Not the nurse. Not an assistant. That should have been my first clue. She explained to me that I had malignant melanoma.
3. How did you feel when you first found out your mole was cancerous?
At first, I was like, “Ok, it’s cancer, so what do we do now?” It really didn’t hit me that it was serious. I love that my doctor realized right away that I didn’t realize how serious it was and she started to explain that I had the worst kind of skin cancer. Later, I went on WebMD and found out that in late stages, malignant melanoma can be 70% fatal! I was in shock. The hubs came home for lunch and I broke down in tears. I had cancer. I was scheduled to consult a plastic surgeon nine days later. I felt like my life was spinning out of control – not good for a self-described control freak. I was scared. I was mad. I was ready to fight but completely clueless. Then, the hubs said the most amazing thing, “Yeah, this sucks, but it’s no fun to sit around being depressed about it all the time. Besides, you now have the ultimate card to play. You don’t want to do something, don’t, you have cancer.”
At first I was horrified! Play the cancer card? That is truly awful! But then, I saw it for what he had intended, a joke. We decided from that point on that we would find all the humor we could in the situation and laugh about it. We laughed constantly. There was a new joke every day – much to the dismay of my mom who wasn’t sure that we were taking the situation seriously. My favorite joke was when the hubs said that I should ask the plastic surgeon for a peg leg. I replied with mock horror. He said, “But I was going to get you an eye patch for Christmas!”
To which I replied, with a slight whine, “But I want a parrot too!”
“Anything for you, babe,” he said with a smile.
4. What is your prognosis today, and how have your habits changed since being diagnosed?
I had surgery on January 14. They removed a ping-pong ball sized piece of my calf. Thankfully, I’m on the plus-size spectrum and that meant that they didn’t have to cut into the muscle. The resulting wound is ugly. There is no other word for it. It has changed my life. My leg will never look “normal” again. I will always have a large divot in my calf and it will take 6-12 months for the skin to return to its ’“normal” appearance – well, I’m not really sure about that. The statement I got from the nurse was, “It will take 6-12 months for it to come to its new normal appearance.” Whatever that is. I hope that one day I will have the strength to rock my favorite dress again, wear shorts, wear cropped pants, be in a bathing suit, but right now, I don’t want anyone to see it. It’s still hard for me to look at it or to let the hubs see it and he changes the dressing for me every day.
On January 26, the pathology report stated that the margins were clear, meaning I was officially cancer free. But, I’m still recovering. I have missed a month of work. I still have pain, drainage, and daily dressing changes. I am currently battling an infection at the excision site. I walk with a cane.
I saw a dermatologist for the first time on February 8. She answered all of my questions, the biggest two being about recurrence and future prevention. As far as recurrence goes, 95% of people who have surgery like mine and have no cancer in the margins of the removed tissue typically see no recurrence in five years. This was a huge relief. However, that relief was tempered by her reminding me that the other 5% aren’t so lucky. If it recurs, it will most likely show up in a similar spot or in the lymph nodes in my groin.
So, I am now scheduled to see my dermatologist every three months for the next two years. After that, it’s every six months for the following two years and then annually. I need to tell my dentist and my eye doctor about my melanoma because who knew you can get moles inside your mouth and on the backs of your eyes. I also need to enlist my hair stylist to check my scalp and the hubs to help with the monthly self-exam. True to form, he’s already making jokes about that job!
The dermatologist commended me on my current habits of using a moisturizer with SPF and using sunscreen in the summer, but added a few other preventative measures to my routine. I am now to use sunscreen every day – even in the winter, even when fully clothed. I also need to wear a hat in the summer (I can’t wait to see what styles Glamour will highlight!) and limit my sun exposure in the summer. Looks like I’ll be under the umbrella having a cocktail instead of out on the boat, but that’s ok. I’m cancer free and I want to stay that way.
5. What do you think would have happened had you not read the article?
I’ve tried not to think about what would have happened if I hadn’t read the article and eventually found the melanoma early. The mole didn’t hurt, it didn’t itch, it didn’t bother me at all. I could have very easily just ignored the whole thing. I know, after doing research and talking to my doctors, that it could have been much worse. Had I not read this article and let the tumor continue to grow, it would have eventually infiltrated my blood stream and spread throughout my body. This would have resulted in radiation, chemotherapy, and would have increased the possibility of the cancer being fatal. I am so thankful that (Fashion Magazine) is a magazine that understands that being beautiful isn’t just about being fashionable; it’s about being healthy too.