Melanoma. Say it Isn’t So-ma.

Greetings All….

As I sit here at the crack of dawn, not sure what time it is where, from sunny freezing Stockholm, I’m pondering exactly why its taken me 4 months to actually stop and write this little something for my blogging younger sister.  Of course the obvious comes to mind:  a busy life, lots of countries, lots of cities, too many time zones to even want to remember.  But those thoughts are fleeting.

It’s not hard in the quiet of this morning to be honest about the why of the delay.  It’s the topic:  Cancer.  Melanoma.  That strange word that almost took everything from me 8 years ago.  True.  I don’t like to think about it, much less write about it, as if writing down my battle will somehow make me lose some ground.  But, since my one and only sister has asked, and since perhaps some of these words might make some small difference to one of the beautiful sun worshippers who likely might be reading her blog about what beauty is, inside and out, it’s time.

Don’t wait. If you’re even slightly suspicious of a skin growth or mole, see your doctor immediately.

2003.  What a year.  I turned 40!  I got sober!  I was in the middle of a horrible divorce!

I do nothing small in my life.  It was very much a “me” time.  My definition of relaxation was the same as it had been since I was a kid — stealing sun.  Any way I could.  Nothing made me feel the way those rays could.  They made me feel as good on the outside as they did on the inside.  We’ve all heard it before:  A tan makes you look thinner.  A tan makes you look heathly.  A tan makes you look rich. And so sun-worship I did.  Any time I could.

I truly believe I was one of the very first booth tanners.  Those boxes were magic.  For a 15 minute investment (or 30 if I could make the time to go twice), I could darken myself to Riviera levels.  From the time I was in my late teens, early twenties, it was my life’s passion.  I loved the look.  I loved the comments.  Booths and tanning beds were my escape.  It wasn’t until afterwards, thinking back, reflecting, that I realized the irony of those long, cylindrical boxes — what they looked like.

I owe my life to a friend at work who made it her passion to nag me about a mole I had on my neck.  I loved my mole.  I thought it looked Madonnaesque.  I thought she was crazy to even question that it might be some kind of ominous health warning.  But I worked on the same floor with her.  So after six months of trying unsuccessfully not to see her in the bathroom or hallway, and after I-don’t-know-how-many emails of dermatologists’ phone numbers, I buckled and I went.

The ABC’s are a general guide and not always definitive. Again, when in doubt, see your doctor!

I remember sitting there in this paper gown wondering why I was sitting there in a paper gown when the mole was clearly on my neck.  A concerned look from the doctor, a little sting when he took part of the mole, and then him looking into my eyes asking me would I come back after the test results were returned….  I remember thinking I won’t ever see you again because there will be nothing in those results.  But I nodded and smiled and didn’t give it a second thought.

Fast forward a week:  I was with my family on vacation.  My sister and son and I were enjoying a nice lunch at a restaurant in a quaint small town.  The sun was shining (of course it was) and I remember inching my chair out from under the umbrella just in case I could catch some rays — when my phone rang.  It was the doctor’s office.

The doctor himself called (not the nurse) asking could I come in immediately and telling me that I had STAGE THREE MELANOMA (he said it all in caps I swear he did).  I said no, I was on vacation, but that I would be happy to come in when I was back in 7 days.  Long pause.  Then I was transferred to the front desk.  The lady on the phone made it clear that my appointment would be at a hospital, with a different doctor, a surgeon.  I was fine with that, took the info on a napkin, and shoved it in my pocket.

I can honestly say that it still hadn’t registered.  Stage Three didn’t sound so bad.  Maybe there were 10 stages?  I didn’t even research it.  I continued to lay out in the sun any chance I had.  I even made sure to block off 3 hours the day before the surgery just to keep that golden tan going until I was done recovering.  Total denial.

These simple steps could save your life.

That ended when I woke up from the surgery sporting a line of almost 100 stitches across my neck.  I cried when I removed the bandages two days later and saw the angry black stitches running from ear to ear.  It looked like the surgeon had tried to cut my head off.  With melanoma, what you might see on the surface is nothing like what is under your skin:  long, roots of cancer radiating out from such a small mark or mole.  It’s very deceiving.

They call melanoma a “shooting” cancer — it can literally shoot anywhere in your body.  So once you have it, it can appear anywhere.  And re-appear it did less than 2 years later, a mass in between my heart and lung, this time in a place that was inoperable.  Fortunately, I was that lucky one in a million.  When they cut my rib in half to get a piece of it, rather than being twisted up in the hilar mass (the place in the body where all the blood vessels come together), mine was sitting smack on top.

And thus ended my career in the sun.

Do I miss that golden tan?  You betcha.  Do I wish I could still layout in the sun and soak up all those rays?  Yes.  Do I feel resentment towards those people around me I see sporting bronzed skin, the kind that obviously doesn’t come out of a bottle?  No.  What I feel is concern.

I am the last person in the world to be telling people what to do and not to do.  The best I can do is lift up my head, showcase the now faded but always-gonna-be-there scar that runs the width of my neck and show them the darker side of sunshine.  It’s a personal choice for sure.  My biggest wish, though, is that it’s an informed choice for everyone.  I think if someone had shown me the marks of melanoma when I was 20 that my time in the sun would have been cut sufficiently short for me not to have to put myself, my family, my friends in the position I did with this disease.

I will never love sunscreen.  But I love my family, my friends, and my life. And so I will always use sunscreen.  And I still do love the sun; I just worship from a safe distance these days.  🙂

For more information on melanoma including causes, risks, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, click here.

Betsy Wilson and her little sister.

Betsy Wilson is a VP with a major cellular company.

She is also an accomplished musician and was, quite possibly, Rip Van Winkle in a previous life.

She is a wife, a mother and my big sister.  And I love her.  Even though she still calls me “Hennifer.”

Thanks for being my guest blogger,

a peep out of you