Know the Skin You’re In

It was a random February afternoon. I was at the California Academy of Sciences with my boys, one of our favorite places to go. My phone rang and it was my dermatologist.

She said a bunch of stuff, but all I remember is, “It’s melanoma.” And everything around me seemed to go fuzzy. I was barely paying attention to Bowie running rampant around the museum, and people were shooting me dirty looks, but for once in my life, I didn’t care.

I had a lot of questions, and they didn’t have answers for me yet. How far advanced was it? Had it spread? Was it treatable? How could that tiny little spot on the outside of my right thigh be cancer?

I had a “wide excision” done around the spot the mole had been taken from, which is doctor speak for, “we cut off a huge chunk of your leg.” I still have a divot and a monumental scar. We call it my shark bite. They also took out a lymph node from my upper right leg, to test to see if the cancer had spread. Lymph nodes are not easy to find, so they had to inject me with radioactive dye, a very painful process, and they had to dig deep inside the leg to get it, so I have yet another lovely scar there.

I am one of the lucky ones. They caught it early, before it had spread, after the mole was removed, no trace of cancer showed up on any testing. But, the whole experience still left me pretty traumatized. Because I’ve known people who have suffered and even died from melanoma, I carry a lot of survivor’s guilt. Why am I so scared and sad and anxious when all they had to do was cut the stupid thing off of me?

Melanoma has a high recurrence rate. Melanoma puts you at a higher risk for other kinds of cancer. And, well, there’s the mere fact that my body has shown that it can make cancer. I’m not officially “cancer free” for two more years. And all the mom guilt. Remember that time I forgot the sunscreen and he got a sunburn? Have I doomed him to my same fate? What if they get melanoma and don’t catch it in time? It’s just a really heavy burden to bear, even though I’m alive and healthy. Go figure.

My paternal grandfather died of melanoma when he was 39. And I had “precancerous” cells removed from me when I was just 23. So, I had melanoma on my radar for years. But, this tiny spot on my leg, which showed up when I was pregnant with Ferris, might have gone unnoticed to the untrained eye. I almost didn’t even bother going in, being so busy with a new baby and all, except that I couldn’t get over the weird color that it was.

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. I urge you to get suspicious moles checked. I urge you to slather yourself, and your children, in sunscreen. I urge you to keep an eye on your skin, a very close eye.  Please, anything that seems off should be looked at. You know your body best, and if your gut is telling you something’s not right, trust it. Enjoy the sunshine, it is wonderful, I LOVE sunshine. But be careful, friends.

melanoma_awareness ribbon

My New Year Starts Today

One year ago today, I went in to see my dermatologist, and with Ferris wailing in the background, she cut off the small, suspicious looking mole on the outside of my right thigh, and sent it off to the lab for the diagnosis that would upend my entire life.

From surgery and resulting issues with breastfeeding Ferris, to the financial upheaval of all of it, to the mental impact of getting a cancer diagnosis at age 34, it was a bumpy ride. But, I’m happy to tell you that today, one year after it all began, that I am finally starting to figure it out.

It took me a long time to realize that the bad things that happen to you in your life are not the hardest things you have to do. After all, you are still here, you have survived the bad things. The hardest part is taking the new person you are after they are over, and figuring out how the rest of your life will be for that new person. People (myself included) are always waiting to “get over” the bad things that happen. But I finally figured out that you never get over anything, you simply move on. You are changed, maybe even damaged, but you have the rest of your life to live. It’s really, really hard, but you have to forge a new road for yourself, the old one is gone.

We recently paid off the significant medical debt we had accumulated, both for my melanoma (surgery, office visits, tests, lab work and biopsies, oh my!) and also for my time in the hospital having Ferris, which had happened just 5 months prior. Looking back at the year, I don’t have a clue how we managed, but we did. And it is like taking a huge breath of fresh air every time I remember we don’t have medical bills saddling us down anymore.

I also followed through with one of my plans for the new year and found myself a therapist. I’ve always been a pretty anxious person and a worrier, and so, as I mentioned recently, the whole experience shook me to my core. I’m having trouble dealing with all of that in itself, but also in conjunction with the whirlwind of other major events that happened around the same time (registering Bowie for Kindergarten, having my 19 year old cat put down, appearing on Good Morning America) that I think kind of distracted me from mentally handling the cancer, and I thought it might be a good idea to talk to someone about that. I’ve been to see her three times now, and it’s been really good. Right now I leave there feeling wiped out. Just drained. Maybe that’s how therapy goes, I don’t really know, I’m new at this. Or maybe over time it will be easier. I can feel things lifting, getting lighter and lighter, little by little. I think it’s working out.

A year ago, I didn’t even know that thing on my leg was cancer. All I knew was it didn’t look right, and a doctor should probably look at it. I am SO GLAD I made the appointment. Or I might not even be here today!

Today it feels like the actual start of my new year. I’ve been in kind of a holding pattern since 2014 started. Glad that 2013 was finally over, but not quite sure what comes next. Today feels significant. Today is what comes next. Today and the rest of the days. I’m changed, but I’m still me. And I can do this.

 

The One Where I Kinda Bum You Out

I suppose if I’m going to hog this domain name, that I could actually blog once in a while. Thing is, along with all the hubbub and running around and preparations we make for the holidays, I’ve also got this looming dark cloud over me lately.

I am really out of sorts right now because recently, one of my favorite teachers from high school passed away at age 52 from breast cancer. I was a student of hers for many years, and she was a warm, wonderful woman and a great mentor. I had always meant to pop into the school and visit her, but never did. Something beat me to it: CANCER.

I think her death reopened something inside of me about my own cancer that I had locked up and buried deep, deep below layers and layers of myself. All of a sudden it hit me like a brick to the forehead: I have had cancer.

Living in the online world, cancer touches you from far and wide. I was reading that a blogger that I follow who was treated for stage 3 melanoma only to find out she had stage 4 ovarian cancer, has had her ovarian cancer return for the third time. And her story now has me really worried about the BRCA gene mutations. These mutations are commonly known as increasing a person’s likelihood to develop breast cancer, but can also mean increased likelihood of other cancers, including malignant melanoma. I don’t know if I’ve been tested for this mutation or not, I plan to ask my dermatologist if this was part of the blood work I had done in March. But, I would make it my (uneducated hypochondriac) guess that if you get cancer under the age of 35 then you might have the mutation.

So cancer has been on my mind lately. REALLY been on my mind. Not just because of these things, but also because I’m looking back at the last 10 years of my life and thinking of all the abuse I put my body through. I didn’t really take care of myself at all. Junk food, diet soda, alcohol, no regular exercise, heavy anxiety, all of this takes its toll. And only NOW am I realizing this.

I’m afraid I’ve done things to my body that I can’t take back, and can’t fix. Because my lymph node came back clear last spring, they ended up not giving me a full body scan. I did have a chest X-ray, so I know my lungs are clear. Which is a good thing. I also had a physical with my gynecologist over the summer, who said everything looked and felt fine to her. But I have the nagging, nagging, NAGGING feeling that they’ve missed something, overlooked something. Because I’m so young, they’re not looking hard enough, not taking things seriously. Of course, I’m way too chicken to go in and ask for the scan. Not only can we not afford it, with $3,000 left from our $15,000 owed out of pocket from the past 2 years, but also I’m afraid they will find something. Which, yes, of course, it’s better to be informed. But being informed means not living in ignorant bliss. Though I would not call my current state of being “bliss” either.

I think when they told me I had cancer, even though they had caught it in time, and it hadn’t spread, I’ve been treating that diagnosis as the beginning of the end. I am now headed to the end of my life. Rather than treating it as the new beginning that it should be. I know that kind of thinking isn’t normal, but I can’t really help it. I need to figure out how to change how I view life and death.

After the cancer diagnosis, there was the actual surgery, which was pretty much the beginning of the end of me breastfeeding Ferris (which if you’ll recall, I had to stop doing when he was 8 months, because he was confusing me with the bottle and biting me until I bled). And there was the false alarm, where the surgeon told me the melanoma had spread to the lymph node, only to call me a week later to say, “No, whoops, sorry about that. You’re good.” That was very difficult. And I’m still wondering, “Are you sure? ARE YOU ABSOLUTELY SURE?!”

I’m trying to focus on 2014. A new year brings new hope, new promise, new life. But, for a person with anxiety issues, a new year also brings new challenges, new problems, new struggles. I barely made it through this year. What if next year is worse?!

I have some changes in mind for 2014, things I can do to better myself and my life, and hopefully help the year not be worse than this one was. I’m trying to be optimistic, and I’m trying to dig myself out of the dumps, if only to not be such a bummer. I want to get the anxiety under control, I want to change the diet a LOT, I want to get past this depression, or whatever funk I’m in, so I can enjoy every day. Every hour. Every minute.

I knew a blogger that found out she had melanoma, and died just months later. I’ve been given a longer time than she was given. Knowing that I need to do more with my time is obvious, but actually following through without feeling so down and so sorry for myself is another game. A game I plan to OWN.

Thanks for sticking with me, folks.

 

 

 

YOU GUYS!

What’s got two thumbs, slightly less of her leg, and is CANCER FREE?

THIS GIRL!

Friday afternoon, I was just doing my thing. Taking care of the boys, cleaning up around the house, waiting for Brien to get home. And out of the blue, my surgeon calls me.

He explained to me that while preliminary testing of the lymph node showed some cells that were a “red flag”, more in-depth testing determined that those cells were NOT from my melanoma, and were also NOT malignant in any way.

I asked, “So…that’s it?”

“That’s IT.”

No more cancer, no more surgeries, I’m in the clear!

Of course, I will still need to go back for checkups and do frequent skin checks, but that’s a small price to pay.

I will be more diligent about looking at my skin, about getting to the dermatologist regularly, and about getting scary looking things taken care of right from the get-go. And I encourage everyone reading this to do the same. And to tell all of their loved ones to do the same. Even if you just have one funny looking mole that you think “is probably nothing.” Go in, get it checked, it could SAVE YOUR LIFE.

Thanks a million times over to everyone that got in touch with me to show support, offer help, give encouragement, say prayers, all of it. I’m grateful and truly touched. The past 8 days of my life would have been a living hell had it not been for all of that love coming my way. Thank you thank you thank you!

Here’s to many more bloggy years to come!