I have cancer. Melanoma. I'm still reeling from the news I received just over 24 hours ago. For the past two mornings, I have just a few seconds after waking when everything is okay. And then it hits me: I have melanoma. Has is spread? We don't know, and won't for a few weeks.
Nuclear war, Trump becoming president (or, Hilary, depending on your political affiliation), bankruptcy, divorce, unemployment, earthquakes, all pale in comparison to the fear that even just the word cancer evokes. Not that those events aren't worse - certainly nuclear war or earthquakes are, but they're so abstract, so distant. When you're told you have cancer, it is inside you. Growing and spreading.
Many of you reading this have been touched by cancer in some way. Some of you may be survivors, or are close to those that are. But even when it has already invaded your family, or you have come face-to-face with it yourself, it still has a way of bringing you to your knees when you're told you have it. Or that it's back. Maybe even more so, because you have seen first-hand the destruction it causes, especially when it has killed someone you love so dearly.
A week or two ago, I had an appointment with a new primary care physician. As part of my exam, she looked at my moles and thought three looked a bit atypical. Most likely the basal cell carcinoma that I've had taken off, cut out, or frozen a few times. She removed one on my left breast, my calf, and my back. None of them looked too concerning, she said.
On Thursday, as I had just picked up Baby A from daycare, I received a call from my doctor's office, and they wanted me to come in for the results of my biopsies. A bit annoyed with what I figured were just the new office's procedure to inform in person, I said "Can't I just see her on Monday when I have my stitches removed?" No, she needs to see you. "Well, I've had skin cancer before (basal and squamous cell carcinoma ) so I'm okay with being told over the phone." Still, they insisted I needed to come in.
I began to get worried, and my husband called them to see if we could drive down right then, instead of waiting a day. I wouldn't be able to see my doctor, but there was a doctor who could see me. I'm going to be upset that they made us drive down here just to tell me its basal cell, I told my husband.
When we were called back into the room, nothing prepared me for being told I had melanoma. Knowing that it was one of the worst cancers to have because it is so fast-spreading and aggressive, I was speechless. Just a few years ago, my husband and I and I attended a wedding and sat at a table with a couple in their late 20's. And I knew she had since died, from melanoma.
The doctor I had never seen before reached out and held my hand. "I'm so sorry" she said. I looked at my husband, who had a look of shock on his face, and then as if she understood, my sweet baby began to cry.
Questions swirled in my head: What stage? Had it spread? They don't know. This was just a biopsy. All they knew was that it was melanoma, at a depth of 1.3 mm. Not just on the surface. There was talk of a referral to an oncologist and a surgeon and then I really knew it was serious. Oncologist. They treat people with cancer. This isn't just removable. It could have spread.
Tears started falling down my cheeks as I asked her to give me a check again, for any moles she thought might be suspicious. Was there anything the other doctor missed? As she did this, my thoughts immediately turned to my daughter. To this precious girl, who just a few days prior, I realized I had fallen even more in love with than when she was born. I thought I was too young to loose my Mom just over a year ago....what if she was going to loose me before she even had a chance to form any lasting memories of who I was?
We left the office in shock and started making phone calls to family. Everyone says to stay positive and that it probably has not spread. They're probably right. But the fear and the idea that it could have is so gigantic that it dwarfs any "we've got this" ideas. It is also the fear of the unknown.
That night, my husband started calling our insurance and looking up the doctors who I was referred to. They had both graduated from USC and were affiliated with Hoag. Although I'm sure USC turns out some average doctors every once in awhile, it was somehow reassuring.
I played with my now 9 month-old and gave her a bath. I thought interacting with her and seeing her happiness and smiles would help. But it filled me with such joy that the possibility of loosing all of that seemed sharper. Her happiness made me more sad, and tears streamed down my face as I smiled at her, and she smiled back, flashing that beautiful dimple.
I awoke at 3 am for no apparent reason and it hit me all over again. Although I have no sick time left due to taking time with my baby, I chose to go to work rather than sit home all day with my thoughts, webMD and Google. I tried to stay busy and am pretty proud of the fact that I made it through the entire day without one tear. Being an 11 or 12 year old student and going in to see your counselor for help, only to find them sitting there crying is like being at a kid's party and finding the clown sitting in a corner, crying. But I felt like that clown. My smile was painted on but inside I was dying.
My husband and I had carpooled and I drove to his school less than two miles away. He was waiting out front. I parked and gave him the longest hug, the kind of hug you give someone when they return from a long trip. And all the tears I had been saving up came out.
He had worked very hard that morning securing appointments for me, and started to fill me in on the ride to pick up our daughter and head back to my doctor's office. Most doctors' first available appointment was mid-March. Can you imagine? But he was able to secure an appointment for me with a surgeon for Monday morning. Unfortunately, it is just a consultation, and then they will schedule the surgery. One week after that, I will see the oncologist, who needs the results of the surgery to come up with a game plan. They will also order a PET scan, which will show if the cancer has spread anywhere else.
Melanoma can spread through the blood. So it can pretty much go anywhere.
We drove to my doctor's office and were able to see my doctor, who had removed the malignant melanoma. We were anxious to know what the mole she removed looked like. You hear that melanoma is dark black and irregularly shaped. Nope, not mine. She said it did not really look suspicious, and was not black. In fact, the mole on my left breast which came back fine, looked much worse.
This was a game changer for me. Hoping this melanoma mole was something "new" that we caught early, I asked her if Dr. Lee, (the dermatologist who had been checking me twice a year) would have detected it. "Probably not. It just looked slightly atypical, and most dermatologists just watch and see if moles change in size or appearance before removing them." Bewildered and scared, I asked her: "Why did you remove it?" Because I am a cancer survivor (breast) and I am not conservative when it comes to mole removal. If it looks slightly questionable, I take it out.
Searching for hope and reassurance, I asked her "Does the fact that it didn't look bad, or wasn't big mean that we caught it early?" No, not necessarily. My heart sank.
Suddenly, all my moles started to become concerning to me, since this one was melanoma and didn't look that bad. Also, it had clearly been there awhile...since surface melanoma can be removed in office, with no need for a referral to a surgeon and oncologist. God, I hate that word. She agreed that all my moles should be removed and sent for testing, and took 4 additional ones off right then, with plans for me to come back every three weeks until they are all gone.
We didn't get home until 7:30pm, and missed our nightly walk and Baby A's bed-time. While many have shared with me that they know someone who has had melanoma and is fine, I now realized that most of them had it on the surface. It was not 1.3mm deep, and they did not have to be referred to a surgeon and put under anesthesia for the procedure. My doctor told me that skin grafting may even be necessary.
If keeping a positive outlook and attitude could kick cancer's butt, my Mom would have done it. It helps you get through the day, sure, but the cancer cells don't know any different. My outlook currently is not positive, and I am scared to death of leaving my little girl. Even if my husband remarried, which I hope he would, this new person just couldn't love her like I do. I hate that this thing is growing in me right now as I type this, and putting out "roots" as my doctor described not just below, but ones on the surface of my skin, that you can't see. It also can travel in the blood. If I could cut it out myself today, I would.
It is for this reason that I have decided that I want chemotherapy no matter what. The best case scenario is that they operate and tell me that they got "all of it." And then the PET scans show that there currently is no cancer anywhere else in my body. But guess what? Even in that best case scenario, the malignant cells could be still traveling in my blood, just waiting to find a new home. Like my liver, or my lymph nodes. Those are not detected by a PET scan. That is why even if the PET scan ends up being clear, I would still be told to repeat it every 6 months for 5 years. That is why cancer survivors are not really "in the clear" until the 5 year mark.
And that is why I am going to do chemotherapy and fight this as aggressively as possible. Even if insurance won't pay for it, and even if it means we cannot have anymore children. I want to be around for this girl, and I want to see her grow up.
UPDATE: I was given the wrong results. Read more here.
Our miracle RAINBOW BABY BOY arrived 8/2018
1st IVF = BFN
2nd IVF = Baby A, born May 2015
3rd IVF = Miscarriage at 14 weeks
4th IVF = BFN
After we paid for 5th IVF, positive pregnancy without IVF!
Because the important moments in life just don’t fit in a status update! I started this blog when I was training for my first ½ Ironman, (70.3 miles) to record what I hoped would be growth and progress but ended up being a huge learning experience. Although fitness is one of the key ingredients to a happy life, it certainly isn't the only ingredient. My blog has evolved to document growth, progress and setbacks in other areas too. From my surprise proposal in Rome and wedding in the fall of 2013, to Mom's devastating stage IV cancer diagnosis and death 2 weeks after I found out I was pregnant. Who knows what shape it will take, but thanks for being along for the ride.