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.

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