The skin I’m in

July 1st of this year was a beautiful sunny summer day, the kind I live for and don’t experience enough of in the Pacific Northwest.

It was also the day a knife-wielding masked man sliced open my outer forearm just below my elbow, removing a huge chunk of skin and permanently scarring my arm.

I’m very grateful that he did.

He wasn’t an assailant; he was a surgeon. His goal wasn’t to hurt me; it was to save my life. He was relieving me of a sizable chunk of my flesh because I was the rather reluctant owner of a malignant little passenger known as melanoma: skin cancer, and the worst form of it.1

Given the circumstances, I didn’t have a major issue with throwing away some of my forearm for the cause.

In terms of chronology, the sequence of events went like this:

  • Sometime in late May, I went to my doctor for a random visit about some minor issue. This was strange for me; I don’t normally go to doctors for little or no reason.
  • During the visit, my doctor decided he didn’t like the look of a mole on my outer forearm just below my elbow. It was one we had been monitoring in previous visits. He scheduled another appointment for me to have him perform an excision of the mole.
  • Jun 9th, the mole and about a centimeter buffer of skin around it were removed by my doctor in his office.
  • Jun 23rd, my doctor informed me during a follow-up visit that the biopsy came back positive for melanoma. It was less than a millimeter thick, was not ulcerated, was not nodular, and almost certainly hadn’t spread to any lymph nodes. These are all very good things. However, because cancer was present, more skin had to be removed to be safe, and to test for additional cancer cells. This required outpatient surgery.
  • June 24th or 25th, I met with a surgeon to discuss my case and plan the surgery.
  • July 1st, I was wheeled into the OR, rendered unconscious by highly trained professionals, and sliced into yet again.
  • July 8th, the best day of all of these listed, my doctor called and left me a voicemail telling me that there were no malignant cells present in the tissue removed during surgery. I was free of skin cancer.

I still have that voicemail saved on my iPhone, by the way.

To be honest, I feel guilty for writing about this. Maybe that’s why, for the past three months, I have established a pattern of writing a couple thousand words about it, deleting the whole thing in exasperation, and starting the process all over again. It would be humorous if it weren’t so annoying and depressing. I just cannot get these words out onto the screen in anything approaching an adequate result.

I know people who have lost children to cancer, which is an unimaginable nightmare. My mom had cancer twice when I was a kid, both times at a much more advanced stage than my little tiny melanoma ever reached. Everyone knows someone who is fighting cancer or who has a loved one that is. Cancer is everywhere, destroying the lives of millions of people on a daily basis. And here I am, whining and crying about an angry little mole that is gone forever. The only proof it ever existed is a nasty scar and some excessive tightness in the skin on my right arm where the excavation took place. At least, that’s the only physical evidence.

But it is important to me. I feel like I was given a wakeup call, a wonderful opportunity to reexamine myself and my life and really think about what kind of person I am and what I should be. There’s a great big cavernous gulf between the two, which I really didn’t seem to care about very much before. I kind of do now.

I am a fortunate human being. I have a wonderful family. I have an incredibly wonderful little daughter. I want to live and enjoy life with her, and see her grow up before I am finally forced to leave her behind on planet earth forever. I’ve always enjoyed and prioritized time spent with her, but nothing puts that into clear focus like realizing you have no guarantee of being able to take that for granted.

I would like to be more intentional in life. Intentional in relationships, intentional in things I spend time on, intentional in my attitudes towards others and towards my own circumstances and every day existence. I want all that, because if I come out of this experience and go right back to being the same me I’ve been for most of my adult life, I have failed miserably and don’t deserve the gift of the extra years I’ve been given.

When I found out I had skin cancer, I definitely did not run around telling everyone and acting like the sky was falling; far from it. Still, I was a little surprised that a few of the people I did tell, some out of necessity, some because I thought they’d understand and care, seemed to really have a complete lack of concern or awareness that this might be kind of a big deal to me. We’re all guilty of lack of empathy towards others, but sometimes it takes a situation in our own lives to remind us that this is a bad thing.

Incredibly, a friend of mine who I’ve known for many years, but rarely ever see, had the same kind of skin cancer at the same time as I did. In his case, he had multiple malignant melanomas, and therefore had several excisions, suffered more pain, and had more chances of things getting serious for him. We’re friends, we genuinely like each other, but we aren’t best friends or as close to each other as we are with others. And yet he was the one person that took the time to deliberately and clearly let me know that he cared about me, that he understood how I felt and what I was going through, and that he was praying for me. I got more support and understanding from him than any other single person, including people I’ve known longer and spend much more time with.

I don’t know if it’s possible to be more understanding and thoughtful towards people who are having problems or are in situations that we’ve never experienced. It is human nature not to get it, and to therefore not take other people seriously when they just need a little slack or someone to talk to about it.

Men refuse to believe that women experience sexism, white people think black people are imagining racism, we even secretly think someone is just stupid or doing something wrong in life when they have some issue we personally haven’t suffered; it’s all symptomatic of an innate inability to imagine or acknowledge as real things that aren’t affecting us.

If I learn nothing else from my super happy fun skin cancer time, I hope I really take to heart not to be that way anymore. And if I do brush people off when I shouldn’t, I hope someone calls me on it and tells me the truth about what a jerk I am.

One other point I’d like to make regarding this disease: Incidence rates of melanoma are climbing. Wear sunblock. Not getting sunburned is an obvious step, but it’s not enough; even if you’re not burning, your skin cells can undergo DNA damage from UV exposure. Don’t let it happen. Just wear the sunblock. Wear clothing that prevents excessive exposure when possible. The universe is already trying to kill you in many other ways, don’t give it one more attack vector.

I finally forced myself to finish this and hit publish because I want to hold myself accountable. Accountable for being serious about trying to always look at the positive side of things and about changing what needs changed. And most of all, accountable to always remember the feeling of thankfulness and appreciation of life that came with finding out I was free from skin cancer.

 


  1.  By far: according to the statistics posted on cancer.org, melanoma accounts for under 2% of skin cancers but the vast majority of deaths due to skin cancer.