Dear Sixteen Year Old Me

Three years ago I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. I was lucky; by sheer chance I had been at my doctor to have a small cyst removed and asked her about a little mole on my thigh that was irritated. She decided to send in a biopsy sample and that made all the difference.  It meant it was caught early, when melanoma is very treatable and has a high recovery rate.  Melanoma is one of the most aggressive forms of skin cancer and if left untreated has a low survival rate – early detection is key.  Still reeling from the shock of hearing that I had a malignant skin tumor, I truly didn’t understand the seriousness of the diagnosis until I found myself in surgery 10 days later having a wide excision performed on my thigh to remove the tumor and a sentinal node biopsy with three lymph nodes removed.  The nodes were thankfully negative, the cancer had not spread beyond the primary site and although the scar still aches when I am tired I fully recovered from the surgery.

I have been faithfully going to see my dermatologist for check ups, first at 3 month intervals, then 6 months and was looking forward to the 3 year anniversary this summer and only having annual check ups.  The office visit was very routine, right up to the moment he scanned the dermascope over my right calf, paused and went back to check again, and then a third time. I knew exactly which mole he was looking at, in the week before my visit I had noticed a change and was concerned about it. He decided on a excision right there and then in his office and I limped home with stitches in my leg. Telling your family that you have a second suspicious mole is awful, I don’t think they were any less scared then me.  We began the long, terrifying wait for the biopsy results.

We only had to wait just over a week when I got the call to come in and see the dermatolgist the next day.  That night and the next morning were very, very long.  As I feared, the biopsy was positive for a second melanoma. Damn. The positive news is that is was detected very, very early and although I will have to have another excision, it will be smaller than the first one and no node biopsy this time.  That’s very,very good news.  I see the plastic surgeon July 8th and expect to have the procedure done within 7 – 10 days after that – they don’t keep you waiting with melanoma – every day counts. The prognosis is excellent, although I will have to go back to 3 month check ups and start the 5 year countdown again.

One of the interesting things that happens almost every time I tell someone about my experience with melanoma is they say “I have this mole I’ve been a bit concerned about – what do you think?”.

Here’s what I think.  IF YOU HAVE A MOLE YOU ARE CONCERNED ABOUT, GO SEE YOUR DOCTOR IMMEDIATELY.

I would not in a million years have thought I had skin cancer.  It took me two years to say the “C” word.  Early detection is critical.  Don’t delay,if you see one of these make an appointment with your doctor and ask the question.  Here are the early warning signs of melanoma that The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends you watch for, the ABDCE’s and the Ugly Ducklings: 

A = Asymmetry.  If you draw a line through themole, the two halves will not match, meaning it is asymmetrical. 

B = Border.  A benign mole has smooth, even borders, the borders of an early melanoma tend to be uneven. The edges may be scalloped or notched.

C = Colour. Most benign moles are all one color— often a single shade of brown. Having a variety of colors is another warning signal. A number of different shades of brown, tan or black could appear. A melanoma may also become red, white or blue.

D = Diameter.  Melanomas usually are larger in diameter than the eraser on your pencil tip (¼ inch or 6mm), but they may sometimes be smaller when first detected (both of mine were smaller).

E = Evolving.  Common, benign moles look the same over time. Be on the alert when a mole starts to evolve or change in any way. When a mole is evolving, see a doctor. Any change — in size, shape, color, elevation, or another trait, or any new symptom such as bleeding, itching or crusting — points to danger.

Ugly Duckling = all the other moles look relatively the same, but this one looks different. It’s the “ugly duckling”.  Go get it checked.

“Dear Sixteen Year Old Me” is a video created by the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund to raise awareness about melanoma that went viral shortly after it was released in May, 2011.  It’s central message – Get to Know Your Skin, Be Aware, not Afraid.  Check your skin monhly for any changes, use sunscreen, and never, ever use tanning beds.  I grew up in Australia, we lived in the sun and at the beach 24/7.  No-one used sunscreen, we used baby oil and iodine to perfect our “healthy glow”.  In later years in Canada I would go to the tanning salon to get a “base tan” before our annual winter vacation in Mexico or the Caribbean.  I didn’t know, or didn’t believe.  Get to know your risk profile and enjoy the sun safely.

One of the ongoing conversations I’ve had  is about how being diagnosed with cancer changes you, how it affects on a very profound level how you live your life. I am very, very lucky. But hearing those words, and going through that surgery, absolutely changed me.  Now I’m walking the path a second time.  I wonder (actually I don’t wonder, I’m pretty sure) that the intensity that I bring to my life is tough on friends and family. I don’t believe in wasting time, I don’t believe in compromises. I believe in wringing the absolute most out of every single experience and moment. It’s not that I don’t plan for the future, I do that in spades, but I don’t put off making that future into my new reality. And if something isn’t working, I’m not wasting time on it, because time is a finite commodity. None of us know when our time  will run out, I just don’t want to get to that day and regret all the things I didn’t do.

No-one ever says “I should have spent more time at the office” or “I had too much fun” or “I took too many trips”, but they do regret time not spent with family and friends, dreams and aspirations unrealized, not saying I love you often enough and not realizing soon enough that happiness is a choice.

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No Bad Days in Baja

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Maids of the Mist at Niagara Falls

Choose happiness, make time, make love and say the words, it all counts.  This isn’t a dress rehearsal. 

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