In the Beginning…

Cancer…the word is kind of like Voldemort – he who must not be named.  Well, I guess I’m Harry Potter and I don’t give a crap what everyone else thinks when I say its name.  I won’t live in fear of it.

I won’t claim to be a cancer expert.  I am a first grade teacher.  I knew at the age of six that I would be a teacher.  My mom, The Nurse, always thought that I should write a children’s book.  Well, this isn’t a children’s book.  I’ve been debating whether or not to write down my experiences lately and I’ve decided the heck with it.  I’m writing this.  If it makes people uncomfortable, mad, feel guilty, or whatever, I don’t care.  Try being in my shoes or any other cancer patient’s shoes for a day.  Let’s just call this my personal manifesto – laden with a little humor.

Let’s start with a little background knowledge.

During the summer, contrary to what most people think, most teachers are working hard tweaking lessons and getting ready for the following fall.  This particular summer, 2010, I was working on my Master’s degree in educational leadership with the hopes of becoming a principal.

I had a rare day of laziness between summer class sessions in early July and I was flipping through one of those fashion magazines you see in the checkout line.  They had an article on skin cancer – you know the one that no one talks about, the one that doesn’t give the appearance of being as serious as other cancers (breast, colon, lung, etc.).  The article had several pictures of moles, kind of like a “ruler of risk.”  On the left-hand end were moles that were very low risk, the right side of the page showed high-risk moles.  About three quarters of the way up this ruler was a mole that looked exactly like the one on the inside of my left calf.  I was curious, but not alarmed.  I read the article with an attitude of detachment.  “I’ll ask the doctor about it,” I thought, “but I won’t make a special appointment for it.”

Later that summer, late August to be exact, I saw my doctor, The DR, for my annual.  Ladies, you know what that means.  Fellas, let’s just say it’s the lady-parts appointment.  While lying on the table with my feet in the stirrups, The DR notices the mole.

“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 DR 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 DR 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 DR 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.

Well, I finally got around to rescheduling the procedure – on my husband’s 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 DR.  Not the nurse.  Not an assistant.  That should have been my first clue.  She explained to me that I had malignant melanoma.

“Ok,” I said, not phased at all, “What do we do now?”  I was in kick-cancer’s-ass mode.  Apparently, that was not a normal reaction.

“I don’t think you understand,” she said.  “There are three types of skin cancer.  Basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma.  Melanoma is the worst.  That’s what you have.  I am scheduling you an appointment with a plastic surgeon as soon as possible.  I’ll get back with you in an hour or so.”

Wait…what?  What just happened?  I told her ok and hung up the phone.  I sat down in the living room and tried to process everything.  What is going on?  She said it was nothing…I have cancer???

Shortly after I hung up the phone, my husband came home for lunch.  I told him what had happened and he nearly fell to his knees.  He apparently grasped the seriousness right away.  Oh my God, I have cancer.

Of course, my next reaction was to check WebMD.  And, par for the course, what I read was frightening.  In its late stages, melanoma can be 70% fatal.  Who knew?  It’s skin cancer…no one really dies from this do they?  I mean, have you ever heard of a skin cancer run?

Nine days later, I was sitting in a plastic surgeon’s office with one of my closest friends, RetDog.  My husband’s employer would not let him have the time off to go to the appointment with me – brilliant!  The doctor was really dry and I immediately thought, “I can’t let this guy operate on me, he has no personality!”  I, on the other hand, am full of personality – sometimes admittedly to the point of obnoxiousness – so personality is important to me.  He drew a circle on my leg and explained what he was going to do.  The chunk of tissue he was removing was going to be the size of a golf ball, but he didn’t think he would have to go into the muscle – hallelujah!

“Since the excision will be so large,” Plastic said, “we’re going to have to do a skin graft.”

“Oh yeah,” I said, curiosity piqued, “Where will you take the skin from?”

“Oh, the upper thigh,” Plastic replied.

“Awesome!  I could stand to lose a little there,” I replied with my usual sass.  I thought RetDog might clobber me for being so flippant.

“Well, we’re not really going to take that much…” Plastic began.

“I know, I know…just trying to be funny,” I rolled my eyes at RetDog.

“Well, you should be prepared for some scarring, there will be a divot,” Plastic told me.

“Oh yeah?  I already have one,” I said, proudly.

Plastic raised his eyebrows.  I think he was starting to warm up to me.

“Yep,” I said, “on my right thigh, from where I crashed my motorcycle!”  True story.  Several years ago, The Hubs bought me a motorcycle and I crashed it within a week of getting my license requiring 17 stitches in my upper right thigh, and resulting in a small think divot.  Upon pulling up my pant leg and showing Plastic the evidence, he just chuckled.  It was official.  I had won him over.

Since it was just three days before Christmas, the surgery was not scheduled until January 14.  I was relieved.  That gave me time to get back to school, tell my little people, and make lesson plans for the substitute teacher.

“So, how much time will I have to take off work?” I asked.

“Well, normal recovery time is two to six weeks,” he said.

“So, I should take off two weeks?”

“What do you do again?”  Plastic was not that easily persuaded.

“I’m a first grade teacher,” I said proudly.

“Let’s start with three weeks and see how it goes,” he said.

Crap!  Three weeks!  It normally takes me several hours to make one day’s worth of sub plans…three weeks???  This was going to involve a lot of long nights!

So, I returned to school.  I discussed the situation with my little people without mentioning the “Big C.”  Side note:  I have three students in my classroom whose moms have various kinds of cancer bringing to mind the question, what’s in the water???  Anyway, they thought it was kind of cool when we talked about the doctor using an ice cream scoop to scoop out the sick part of my leg.  They also thought it was super cool that when I returned to school I might be in a wheel chair and there was even the remotest of remote possibilities that they might be able to push me in it.  We talked about how after the surgery I would be a pirate.  Yep, a pirate!

Why a pirate you might ask?  Well, it just so happened that a week before I had surgery, The Hubs and I met his parents, his brother, and his aunt and uncle for dinner and a night of entertainment of the musical variety.  The band played these crazy shanties and sailing songs from long ago.  My favorite was one called, “It’s All Part of Being a Pirate.”  It details the plethora of body parts lost by pirates – how, why, what happens next – and is followed by the rousing chorus, “It’s all part of being a pirate, you can’t be a pirate with all of your parts!”  So, seeing as I was going to be losing a (small, yet golf-ball-sized) part of my leg, I was officially going to be a pirate.  My husband even joked about getting me a peg-leg prosthesis and an eye patch.  See, in this house, we laugh at cancer.

Everything was fine.  I had accepted my fate.  I was going to fight.  It came down to the wire, but I even managed to get all of the assessments and lesson plans done before I left.

Even walking into the hospital for surgery, I was great.  I wasn’t scared – ok, I was, but I wasn’t going to let anyone see it.  I was a fighter!  I was positive.  I was cracking jokes and making the doctors and nurses laugh all the way into the operating room.  I fell asleep and a mere two hours later woke up in recovery and commenced singing my pirate song much to everyone’s amusement.

So, why am I writing this blog?  So far, it seems like my cancer experience has been fairly short and painless.   Well, my cancer experience is far from over.  As I write, I am still awaiting the pathology from my surgery to see what happens next in my treatment.  It may be over and I just have to monitor from here on out, it may get much, much worse, but from now on, I will be a cancer patient, no, a survivor.  The point is, this is not about my cancer.  It’s about my experience.  It’s about how my friends and family reacted to it and how you can learn from our successes and mistakes to be supportive when someone close to you is diagnosed.  And in the process, I hope to make you chuckle a couple of times.

Please note that I am not speaking for all cancer patients.  Some want to be anonymous and hide from the world.  I am not one of those people.  I am speaking of my own experience only, and maybe people who know people like me or people like me can get something from it.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. The Nurse
    Jan 30, 2011 @ 19:46:25

    really cool beginning. This could develop into something. Arrrgggg to the Pirate


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