A couple weeks ago, I got the call. One of those calls no one ever wants to get. One of those that I hope I can prevent even one person from getting. My biopsy results were in. I had skin cancer. The bad kind. Melanoma.
Before I share the details of my situation (which is a developing story), please schedule a full body scan at your dermatologist right now!! It’s SO easy and painless. Bundle it in with your skin consult or anything else you’e been putting off. Please do that for me. It’s not worth the risk!! Trust me. I will never again not get one regularly. Unfortunately, I’ll be required to. Every 3 months for the next 2 years, every 6 months for the 2 years after that, and every year after that. And that’s if nothing is found in any of those appointments.
If you kept reading, I’m assuming you more details. I’m writing it here because honestly, I’m not really able to talk about it. I’m still in a state of shock, fear, and denial. I go through moments of acceptance but largely, it’s the latter. I’ve poured myself into my day job where I can because when I don’t, I break into tears. I still can’t refer to it as cancer without my eyes watering. Instead, I just say “my spot” – even though the “spot” isn’t technically there anymore. Currently, the “spot “kind of looks like Shark Week happened on my calf with a miniature shark to be honest. That makes it sound worse than it is. The “spot” is probably a little over a centimeter big. It could be worse.
Let’s rewind a little. I went to the dermatologist for a face serum. This one to be exact. I have melasma and wanted to try something new. I was wearing long sleeves and my lululemon capri leggings. There were only a few inches of skin showing on my entire body aside from my face. The dermatologist HAPPENED to see a spot on my lower calf and said “we need to look at that”. I was dreading that reaction to be honest. Ironically, I had made an appointment with a dermatologist in downtown a week after this appointment specifically to get “the spot” checked out. Throughout this year, I noticed it was growing, getting less symmetrical, and starting looking a little cloudy. I remember mornings in Pure Barre where we would do the butterfly stretch and I’d stare at it, then look away trying to ignore it (because, if you ignore something, it’s not there, right?), and then glance back. I just had a feeling.
The dermatologist got out this device used to check for suspicious spots. There’s probably a name for it but it looks like one of those things doctors put in kids’ ears with a light on the end to check for wax or whatever. He immediately told me that I needed to come in for a biopsy and recommended I get a full body scan to check for any other spots. Two weeks of sleepless nights later (my FitBit stats have been shit over the last month), we made the hour long drive to the suburbs to get my biopsy. I say we because I also scheduled Matt for a full body scan too. For solidarity, you know. I was so nervous. I cried as soon as the nurse brought me into the exam room. I cried again when the dermatologist came in and said hi. I cried throughout the procedure. I was a mess. I don’t remember the last time I cried before this. I’m not a crier.
At one point, the dermatologist asked me if I was scared of the biopsy and I said no. Pain, I can handle. The c-word, I couldn’t. I was scared of the results. Truthfully, I think I knew deep down. The signs weren’t good. It’s not like I hadn’t seen the spot every day for the last decade. They numbed the area by giving me 2 shots – I could still feel after the first shot. The shots were the most uncomfortable part. Kind of like a typical shot. The biopsy itself took about 3 minutes. It was short and I didn’t feel a thing. Overall, pretty painless. I answered DMs on Instagram the entire time to distract myself. Bless you guys who kept me distracted in those moments without even knowing what I was going through. Seriously.
Luckily, I had no other spots on my body. I can’t even imagine how I would have reacted if I had. I walked out to the waiting room with instructions on how to care for the biopsy site in my hand and waited for Matt. He got done with his exam and didn’t have anything to be concerned about. I don’t know what would have upset me more. If I had had another spot or if Matt had had one. I think probably Matt.
A week later, I got the results. This was THE call. I was sitting at my desk at work on a Friday. Thank god it was a summer Friday and barely anyone was in the office. The doctor calmly told me my results came in and it was a melanoma. WHAT. How does this happen? I was shocked. My eyes immediately teared up as I tried to understand the next steps. I didn’t even know what questions to ask. You now how people always ask you if you’re okay and that’s what triggers more tears? The conversation went a lot like that. We ended up scheduling a surgery date. At that point in time, I didn’t really know what melanoma meant other than the fact it was skin cancer. I didn’t know there were 3 types of skin cancer. I knew nothing about Breslow thicknesses. I didn’t know if I would live to be honest.
In the hours and days that followed, Matt called my dermatologist at least 5 times for more information. Matt’s been handling most of the ongoing communication because I wasn’t able to. Both emotionally and because I was traveling. He’s also been cleaning and dressing the biopsy site twice a day (aka “my spot”). I still struggle with saying cancer out loud.
Matt took me to the Paris, Illinois sunflower fields 2 days after I got the news to cheer me up. He knew I’d love sunflower fields. These photos are ironic, I get it.
I got a call a few days later from the surgeon that I might want to consider a plastic surgeon because I would probably need a skin graft. I was in New York, about to present our financial forecast to our executive team. I’m sorry, what? How did it go from a 30 minute surgery with stitches to a skin graft? That sounded pretty serious. Since we live in downtown and there would be many check ups, they referred me to a doctor at Northwestern. He’s the best melanoma specialist in Chicago and his name is Jeffrey Wayne. The benefit of having a plastic surgeon do a skin graft is that I would be under general anesthesia (also, more serious). Given how I coped through the biopsy (i.e. not well), they felt this might be wise for me. I’d probably heal in a way that was a little more controllable and aesthetically pleasing. I don’t really care about that as much as I care about being cancer free but I appreciated the option.
In the last week, we’ve stalked Northwestern on the phone every single day. Let’s just say their urgency didn’t match our urgency. They needed to review my case/paperwork before accepting me as a patient. It’s like an exclusive club you do and don’t want to be a part of. Early this week, they called and said I was approved for a consultation. The first available was the 27th of August. I said I’d take it and promised that if anything came available sooner, I’d drop everything to be there. I didn’t want this to spread. We have to get through the consultation before I’m approved for surgery. That’s where we are today.
What we’ve found out over the last week after many calls, multiple times a day, is that my Breslow thickness was 0.4mm. That’s relatively thin and the survival rate is high. I don’t know how high because Google tells me a million different things. As a former A student, none of them seem high enough to me. 1mm in thickness is where things start to look grim. 40% of the way there is a hell of a lot closer than I want to get to grim. My cancer stage is PT1A. The melanoma is superficial spreading type. Due to the location of the cancer and lack of excess skin on that area of my body (my calf/ankle), it makes it challenging for stitches to heal without breaking open again. Especially for active people. The skin graft is a mechanism to avoid a wound that breaks open again and again during healing. If it had been on my back or stomach, I probably wouldn’t need a skin graft. The margins were clear on my biopsy which is a good sign. However, standard procedure is to remove tissue 1cm in every direction around the biopsy with surgery. That’s all I really know right now. We’re waiting on the decision of the doctors and what happens during surgery.
My thoughts have gone everywhere in the last couple weeks. Maybe I didn’t ask the right questions. Maybe I just make a really shitty sick person. Honestly, I had no idea what to ask. How is someone supposed to know? Where is the “welcome to being a cancer patient” packet with all the FAQs? It’s almost 2020 and melanoma rates have doubled in the last 30 years (or something like that). The internet says a million different things. Google searches and webMD are terrifying to read on their own.
The hardest thing for me to understand (still) is why me. I’m there’s some motivational quote about how you shouldn’t wonder about that stuff, but I’m wondering it. I have never been in a tanning bed. I wear sunscreen regularly (obviously I could improve and I have). I’m pale. I live in Chicago where I don’t see the sun for 9 months of the year. I use clean beauty products. This spot had been on my leg for as long as I can remember. I honestly have no clue how or why this happened to me. Lesson learned: it can happen to anyone.
What was the point of this post? To convince you to go get a full body scan. I probably could have said it a lot more succinctly without the details of what I’ve been through but I’m trying to be transparent. I hate struggling but this is why I’ve been a little distant lately. I know I don’t have it that bad. Yes, it could be worse. Maybe the cancer community doesn’t condone comparisons like that. I don’t know. I’m new to this community. I didn’t think I’d ever be a part of it with my healthier lifestyle choices. And if I did become a part of it, I thought I’d have about 40 more years to mentally prepare. I didn’t want to be an early applicant at age 33. So forgive me for not knowing how to approach this. But reality check, I know people have it worse than I do. I think I’ll be okay. I guess no one can know 100% but the odds are favorable. I have gotten a small sense of the fear, the doubt, the lack of control that go along with a diagnosis like this. And I don’t wish it on else.
Go schedule your body scan with your dermatologist.