When I was 21 years old, I had a creepy looking mole that everyone kept telling me looked weird. It was on my back so I couldn’t really see it for myself. After being urged, I finally went to see a dermatologist. This same mole had been already removed five years prior, but for some reason it had been burned off and never tested. It grew back, and this time with a vengeance.
I sat there in a little hospital gown with my toes dangling in mid-air as she told me it didn’t look good. “It might be serious,” she said. “Do you have someone to take you home or are you by yourself?” she asked. Of course I was by myself. I’m an adult, I thought.
After leaving her office, I sat alone on the subway, listening to my music and studying the people around me. I thought about what it would be like to have cancer. I panicked and then decided that would be the last time I’d think about it.
A few days later I found out that the mole on my back was indeed melanoma. It was stage 2. I was scheduled in for surgery to remove a large section on my back and under my arm to test lymph nodes. Results would take two weeks.
Before the surgery, I was to meet with an oncologist. My dad happened to be in Toronto, so he came with me to the Oncology appointment. I hadn’t been to a doctor’s appointment with a parent since I was 14 years old. We sat there dumbfounded as the doctor laid out the plan.
“Melanoma is the only skin cancer that can travel inside of your body. If this has happened, we will have to either do chemotherapy or radiation and as you were told previously, definitely the surgery. I have to tell you, this could be a fatal disease.” His voice was stale and bleak.
All I could think about was how sorry I felt for my dad. He’d sat in offices like that hearing words like metastasized and malignant for years with my mom.
We drove home in silence. I couldn’t believe this was all from an ugly ass mole.
I had never been one to bake in the sun. Although I have always loved how a tan looks, I would get so cagey in such heat that I could never stay long enough to get a fabulous glow. So how could I have gotten melanoma? I can’t say for sure, but I often refer to that one time in the south of France. Yes, that one time.
I had been traveling with a friend who was beach lover. She had beautiful olive skin that tanned perfectly, and I remember how fresh and healthy she looked after the beach in a dimly lit bar. I wanted some of that.
Apart from the few times I had entered a tanning bed in the early ’90s, this was one of the very rare times I actually spent ‘baking’ my skin. After falling asleep on the beach one afternoon I burnt my back badly, and when my skin grew back after blistering, I didn’t think about it again. That was of course until I heard the word melanoma and chemotherapy and surgery all in the same sentence. As it turns out, it can take one time, as explained in the powerful “Dear 16 year old me” video from DCMF. If you burn before the age of 18, this can double your chances of getting melanoma.
When they tested my lymph nodes they found that there wasn’t any cancer present in those nodes. I was one of the very lucky ones. They sent me home with strict instructions to never go in the sun again without protection and to see my dermatologist on a regular basis. I was to watch my moles carefully. But like trying to feel a lump in your breast, it’s pretty hard not to freak yourself out every time you see an odd-looking mole. Still, I look at those little brown blobs every day and remember that I was much luckier than some others and to respect that by protecting my skin.
As it turns out, that dark glow one gets from hours in the sun becomes embarrassingly meaningless when you’re sitting under a florescent light being told you have cancer.