I am normally a very private person, but after a lot of thought I have decided that I want to share my story. My hope is that I might bring this real disease to light and maybe help just one person make better decisions and stay on top of their health. As many of my friends know, I have been working on living a healthier lifestyle. I have been running races and half marathons for about two years. I have tried to make healthier decisions in all aspects of my life.
With this, I also vowed to get back to my regular routine of visiting the dermatologist annually, since it had been about two years since I had last gotten checked. At the end of May 2013, I visited my dermatologist for a routine skin exam. With my fair skin tone and hair color, and several freckles/moles, I am supposed to go once a year for a full body scan. It is normally very easy, I take everything off, put a gown on, he looks at everything with either his dermascope or eyes, and takes notes and tells me everything looks good and he’ll see me next year, or he biopsies one or two to be cautious and they come back benign and all is well. At this visit he spotted a mole on my leg that looked suspicious, but it was still round and wasn’t very big so he didn’t think I should be overly concerned, thinking it might be a spitz nevous or a type of pre-skin cancer that could easily be taken care of.
I had a biopsy that day, like I have had a handful of times in the past, and figured I would get the results like I always did in about a week – saying everything came back fine just keep a close watch on your skin and we will see you next year. This time was different. I waited, and waited, and waited. I called the doctor’s office several times, and eventually found out they sent my pathology specimen to a specialist in California because it was likely a type of skin cancer, and they needed to figure out what kind. In July 2013, my world came to a complete hault. My doctor called the house after hours and told my husband to have me call him when I got home from work. I knew something was wrong. I had a knot in the pit of my stomach the whole ride home. I couldn’t get there fast enough, but when I did I called him promptly when I walked in, and put the phone on speaker so Tim and I could both listen to what he had to say. He called to tell me they had done extensive testing extracting DNA and running special stains on my lab, and unfortunately I had melanoma.
I didn't hear much of what he said after that, I held it in until I hung up, but then I couldn't stop crying. I couldn't tell my family that night because I couldn't even comprehend what was happening. This was my worst fear since I learned about skin cancer and my risk factors and prior history in the sun. I found out there are four stages, with each stage the mortality rate drastically changing. The percentages of people in stages three through four that lived beyond 5-10 years made me cry. I had melanoma stage 1B, at 33 years old. For my friends that don’t know, melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, causing 75% of all skin cancer deaths. There are pre-cancers and basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers that are awful and can be extremely disfiguring, but are usually slow moving and can be cut out completely with a very great outlook. The worst part about melanoma skin cancer is, if it is not caught in its early stages, there is no cure at this time. In most cases, it has to be surgically removed completely with the hope that it hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes. The destruction and statistics for all of the stages of this disease are terrifying, but III-IV are horrifying. Even stage 1 can spread to the lymph nodes. Mine was found on my leg to the side of my knee and was a stage IB, meaning it was a thin melanoma in thickness, but the cells were dividing rapidly (the miotic rate was very high). They told me this meant it was growing and ready to spread…fast. It had already penetrated through the first layer of skin called the epidermis and into the second layer or dermis….so it was really moving. I am extremely grateful I went to the dermatologist when I did. That office visit saved my life.
The next step for me was surgery where I had the biopsy taken. I had wide local excision (WLE) surgery on July 19, 2013. The surgeon took out more tissue around where the mole was removed in order to test for cells that may have “wandered off” or moved towards the lymph nodes, and to reduce the chance that the melanoma would come back in that same area. Although I was frightened, the surgery was quick and I didn’t faint or get too light headed. The one part that got me was the shots he had to put around the area before he did the surgery (those were not fun), and the pulling and tugging I felt as he removed the tissue. Nope, they don’t knock you out for this surgery, you get to be awake for the whole thing! I got nine stitches and was told they would call me with the results of this tissue sample, and to come back in two weeks to get the stitches removed. Very luckily for me, the pathology report came back with no traces of residual melanoma in the sample. It appears they got it all out of that area. I still had the ability to have a sentinel lymph node biopsy to see if there were any traces of cancer in my groin, the closest lymph node to the site. I decided against that procedure because of the risks and the fact that it would not increase my survival rate, according to my doctor.
Since then I have had eight more biopsies done on other spots/moles, and have had stitches in and out for about eight weeks straight. I have scars all over my body. I feel like a human pin cushion, but I have peace of mind knowing I am being cautious, and having everything that could potentially be cancer removed. Does that mean I'm done with this for good? No, it can come back at any time. Once you get a melanoma, you are more likely to get another one. I am to get checked every three months for the next five years. I was told five years is the beacon point, when you can go back to annual exams. I had my last two (for now) excision surgeries recently and was very relieved to hear that the pathology report came back clean. This will have been 8 biopsies/surgeries in five months. Thankfully every biopsy after my melanoma surgery came back clear. A few more weeks of healing and then stitches are removed in this area and I can run again. I cannot wait!!!
Why am I telling you this? I am light skinned and have moles and freckles all over my body. I always have. I know a lot of my family and friends do too. I knew I was at a higher risk than average for developing skin cancer because of these traits, but like most people I thought “it won’t happen to me.” I am healthy, I feel great! I'm too young for that. I tanned occasionally in tanning beds as a teenager, and laid out at the pool and river several times growing up. I went on vacations and layed out on the beach. I wanted to have that “healthy” glow, and I thought I looked better and felt better with a little color in the summer.
When I see pictures of friends laying out by the pool or proud of their tan or posting pictures of their recent sunburn, it makes me cringe. You don’t have to be light skinned to get skin cancer. You don’t have to have a family history. You don’t have to even have moles. I know three people personally who have been diagnosed with malignant melanoma. One the same age as me (I am 34 years old). I know several others who have carcinomas or pre skin cancers that they’ve had burned off or removed. Of the few people that I have shared my story with, some responses I have gotten are “Oh I'm so sorry, my Uncle died from melanoma,” or “Yeah, my friend’s mom had that and passed away,” or "We just lost a friend in my hometown to this, he was so young." Too many people are affected by this either personally or through someone close to them. THE TAN IS NOT WORTH IT….stay out of the sun. I would be happy to show my pictures of my surgeries and scars to anyone who is thinking otherwise, or who has a teenager that wants to be tan or is upset with their pale skin.
My advice to everyone is to check yourself every month…..with a mirror for those hard to see areas, or have your spouse help you. If you have never been get to the dermatologist and go regularly. This appointment saved my life. I waited two years and if I had waited three it might have been too late. If you have anything that concerns you, see a professional. The warning signs that I can share are (and I’m not a doctor but have spoken to my doctors and read many articles) asymetrical spots, spots with irregular borders, spots with more than one color (usually black, brown, tan or red), spots that are larger than a pencil eraser, spots that are changing or evolving, or anything that looks different than your normal freckle/mole pattern. ANY of these should be concerning and should be taken seriously. I am sharing this because I don’t want ANY of my friends or family to have to go through what I went through. I am willing to help and fight for this cause it in any way I can. Cancer sucks!! Thank you for reading my story and I hope it helps you take better care of yourself as I want to be around and want you to be around for a very long time. Life is precious!
In closing, below are some very scary but real statistics that I learned or read about melanoma:
- A person’s risk for melanoma doubles if he or she has had more than five sunburns at any age.
- One sunburn damages the skins DNA. DNA mutations are a primary factor in skin cancer.
- If caught in the earliest stage, melanoma is entirely treatable with a survival rate of nearly 100%. If untreated and allowed to spread, there is no known treatment or cure.
- While family history, genetics and the environment undoubtedly contribute to developing melanoma and other skin cancers, the largest melanoma risk factor is exposure to ultraviolet rays (UV) from natural or artificial sources, such as sunlight and indoor tanning beds.
- The National Cancer Institute recently released a special report that found overall death rates from most cancers declined from 2000 through 2009. But NOT melanoma! Melanoma is increasing in incidence and mortality - with the exception of women’s mortality which neither increased nor decreased.
- 1 person dies every 57 minutes from Melanoma
- Exposure to tanning beds before age 30 increases a person’s risk of developing melanoma by 75%, and younger people who regularly use tanning beds are eight times more likely to develop melanoma than people who have never used them.
- The incidence of people under 30 developing melanoma is increasing faster than any other demographic group, soaring by 50 percent in young women since 1980.
- Legendary musician Bob Marley died, at age 36, from melanoma on May 11, 1981. This proves you don’t have to be light skinned to get this cancer.