Although we live a mere 60 minutes from the beautiful, white sand beaches of New Jersey's coastline, my husband Bob and I rarely make the drive these days. Not so when our daughter Melissa,19, was in her elementary and middle school years.
With a good book in hand and plenty of caramel corn from one of the boardwalk vendors, we'd while away the gorgous, sun-drenched days, content, comfortable, and feeling very much at home.
It was during one of these lazy summer days in August of 2010 that I first noticed it.
A mole on my upper left thigh.
My body is no stranger to moles. I'm covered with them.
But this one was different.
I had never seen it before.
The tiny, brown, slightly raised spot appeared no larger then a pencil eraser.
Yet I knew. I instinctively knew.
This was melanoma.
My fears didn't come without justification. I first experienced skin cancer at the age of 27 when a basal cell (the least serious type) appeared on my left cheek. Two or three more basal cells invaded my skin over the years, but melonoma (the most serious type) had never reared its ugly head.
Until that day. On the beach.
A month later a biopsy confirmed my suspicions.
If melanoma is found and treated early, it is usually cureable. But if not, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body where it is harder to treat and can be fatal.
I was left with a huge, ugly, purple scar....a small price to pay for peace of mind.
As the months wore on and I dutifully visited my dermatologist for follow up, there were no signs of reocurrance, even after that significant five years post-diagnosis milestone.
I had tackled the cancer and won.
Or so I thought.
I noticed it a couple of weeks ago while taking my morning shower. Unusual puffiness around my left groin area. At first I dismissed it as more of those unwelcome rolls of fat that have started to appear in unusual parts of my body ever since I entered the dreaded "change of life."
"Dang," I thought. "I have to double down on my diet!"
But upon further review, I second guessed my original assumption. While I certainly do not profess to be a cancer expert, my years of working in health care marketing and public relations taught me enough to know that if cancer is going to spread, it's first target will be the nearest lymph node...which in my case was located in my left groin.
Yes. That's right. My groin. As unlikely as it seemed, perhaps, over the course of the past seven years, one tiny melanoma cell had broken free and travelled through my body, multiplied, and now decided to appear as something that seemed much more sinister than a roll of fat.
I told myself not to panic, and decided to do a google search. (NOTE - if you think you have cancer, do not, I repeat - DO NOT - do a google search.) Before long I found myself in melanoma chat rooms reading posts from 130,974 patients who all had their melanomas come back after a number of years.
Do not panic. Do not panic. Do not panic.
Breathing heavy, my heart racing, I decided to keep my fears to myself and call my dermotologist the first chance I got. After all, no reason to worry Bob or anyone ele for that matter, at least until the doctor gave me something to worry about.
Predictably, I didn't listen to my own advice.
I decided to show the strange puffiness to my ever so patient hubby. "I'm sure it's nothing," came his attempt at reassurance. "You'll call the doctor in the morning, but I wouldn't worry about it."
Predictably, I didn't listen to my sweetheart's advice.
I tried to nod off, hiding my anxiety from Bob who slept soundly by my side. But the fears were insidious. They invaded my thoughts, spinning round in my head until they built to an incredibly irrational crescendo that left no doubt in my mind....I was going to die.
Bob would be left in a state of total devastation. Who would take care of him? Would he find love again? And my sweet Melissa, a college girl who still needed her mommy. What would she do without me? And my beautiful step-daughter Jessica and her baby Miles. I would never get to see her continue to be such an awesome mommy, or get to watch my precious Miles grow into a young man.
I could pretend no longer that all was ok.
Bob awoke from his slumber and held me tight, letting my tears flow freely. His love filled my heart, pushing the irrational thoughts aside and allowing me to return to some semblance of normalcy.
Two days later I found myself in the dermotologist's exam room, showing him the unusual puffiness. He took one look and shook his head. "That's nothing," he said with authority. "If it were melanoma it would be further down, closer to your groin and it would be a solid lump."
"Then what is it?" I asked, still concerned.
He took a closer look and said, "It's just fat."
Great. I don't have melanoma, I'm just a blob.
Back home, against my better judgement, I once again initiated a google search. But this time I came back with a diagnosis that perfectly matched my symptoms, a femoral hernia, which appears as a bulge near the groin or the thigh. This type of hernia happens when the intra-abdominal tissues are pushed through a weakened spot in the the muscle cause by overstraining.
A few days later I found myself in my gynecologist's exam room, showing her the puffiness, explaining my melanoma fears, and my hernia hypothesis. She seconded the dermologist's opinion that it was not a return of the most deadly form of skin cancer and agreed it was probably some type of a hernia. She ordered a CT scan to confirm the diagnosis, and I cautiously breathed a sigh of relief.
Unfortunately, thanks to a family history of melanoma, my bad habit of tanning as a teen, and skin that's covered in moles - I know am still at high risk for melanoma and other forms of skin cancer. In fact, I had a basal cell removed from my forehead last month. That's why I continue to obsessively check my skin and see the dermotologist twice a year.
The experience of thinking I had cancer strengthened my empathy for those who courageously struggle with the disease every day. It also helped put life into perspective and reaffirmed what is more important to me than anything in the world....my family.
Signs of melanoma:
- A new spot on the skin
- A spot that is changing in size, shape, or color
- A sore that doesn't heal
- Redness or swelling beyond the border of a mole
- Change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness, or pain
- Spread of pigment from the border of a spot into surrounding skin
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