A couple months back, I lightheartedly wrote about a very prominent, but otherwise healthy mole on my left temple and how it was the genesis of the journey toward learning to love myself. At that exact same time, unbeknownst to me, another mole had begun telling a very different story.
On December 21, 2016, just a few days shy of Christmas, I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. What began as a standard skin check the week prior, where I voiced my concern over a particular mole on my back, turned into a biopsy and then something much more than I could have imagined—cancer.
I was in the midst of a busy day when I received a voicemail from an unknown number. “I’ll check it later,” I thought, not thinking it might be my doctor. I had just finished an appointment and was heading to another when it dawned on me to finally listen. “This message is for Sadye, this is your skin doctor, it’s regarding your biopsy, it’s not an emergency, but call me on my cell when you get this.” My initial reaction was, “fuck, it’s cancer,” followed by a brief pause where I considered waiting until after Christmas to call her back, but then ultimately decided I’d rather know now what’s going on.
As she explained the diagnosis and course of treatment my stomach dropped and a wave of shock washed over me. “The mole we biopsied is melanoma. We caught it early, but it’s not the earliest. It doesn’t appear to have spread. We need to remove the rest of the tumor through an excision surgery by early January.” As we hung up the call, I found myself hanging on to these key phrases, “it’s early, but not the earliest” and “it doesn’t appear to have spread,” and without hesitation I began to sob. After about 10 minutes of sufficiently blubbering, I regained my composure, texted the news to one of my best friends and went about my day, intermittently crying despite my best effort not to.
By the time I settled in for my last appointment of the day—a bikini wax (because apparently, I’m a masochist)—I was feeling like I had finally gotten my emotions in check and would be able to make it through without a single tear or the slightest mention of my less than cheerful news. That is, of course, until Val (my wonderful esthetician) asked a very simple, but complicated question: “What’s new?” There were several things I could have shared in that moment (work happenings, holiday plans, an upcoming date, etc.), but instead—in true Sadye insert-foot-in-mouth fashion—I blurted out, “I have cancer!” just as she was mid-wax. Yep…talk about a whole new meaning to the phrase “intimate conversation.” To validate my feelings over what was going on I needed to tell someone face-to-face and Val, with her compassionate soul and wicked sense of humor, was exactly the person to help me cope in that moment. We cried, we laughed and then went about taking care of my lady business. And you know what? I may have just been told that I have cancer, but my vagina never looked better! Thanks Val.
Having never gone through something like this I didn’t know what questions to ask during the initial diagnosis call, which meant that for the next five days, despite it being Christmas and thankfully being with my family, I was tortured by my thoughts and fears and angst over what those two phrases meant, unclear on the actual stage of my cancer (there are varying levels within the “early” stages 1 and 2 of melanoma) and what my future would hold. Playing Google M.D. didn’t help my overactive imagination either. Despite all of that, however, I refused to let cancer ruin my Christmas. During the day, I often relied on my sick sense of humor as a coping mechanism, saying things like, “Mom, would you mind getting me some water? I have cancer and can’t get up,” to which she’d reply, “that’s not funny,” followed by a sideways glance and then a slight quiver of her lip—the subtle betrayal of her attempt to conceal worry. When I wasn’t tormenting my mother, I was otherwise immersed in the joy of my precious nephews and loving, supportive family. At night, it was a different story. Alone in my bed, I cried myself to sleep, not wanting to burden anyone else with what was actually going through my head—what if it did spread to my lymph nodes or lungs (a common outcome of melanoma) or it’s more advanced than they think? Thanks Google.
On December 27, I had my follow up visit with the doctor to remove the biopsy stitches and discuss in further detail my diagnosis and treatment plan. Through a significant amount of research, I compiled a list of questions and concerns—all 42 of them (a doctor’s worst nightmare). In the end, this is what I learned:
I have stage T1a melanoma, which is the earliest of the invasive stages (e.g. the tumor extends below the top layer of skin into the dermis layer). The tumor is not ulcerated, the mitotic index is zero (mitotic activity indicates the rate at which the cancer cells are dividing) and there is no indication that it has spread. The next step is to excise the tumor, including a 1 cm margin around all sides to ensure the entirety of the cancer is removed. Beyond that, no other treatment is necessary; I simply need to be monitored (e.g. skin and lymph node check) every three months for the first year and then every six months thereafter, assuming no new tumors develop.
Basically, mine is the best possible prognosis beyond the earliest stage (stage 0 or when the melanoma is in situ, meaning still confined to the top layer of the skin, also known as the epidermis). Phew, it’s all good news! Well, aside from the part about having cancer to begin with.
As I joked with my family prior to knowing the full breadth of my diagnosis, it’s a good thing I’m hyper-aware of my body and changes to it and that I’m proactive about having concerns checked out. Nine times out of 10 it turns out to be nothing and I feel somewhat silly for going to the doctor, but it’s experiences like this that make me glad I’m a borderline hypochondriac (also known as a Virgo). In this case, my mole had changed significantly in a matter of just four months. It changed shape, color and size; began to tingle, itch and actually hurt; and at a few points, it bled. I learned after the fact that these are all signs of melanoma, but very rarely are people aware of these symptoms, especially of the physical sensations, until it’s at a much more advanced state.
I was diagnosed with cancer, but I’m one of the lucky ones. As I told my mom after learning the positive prognosis, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than a mole to take me down!
On January 3, 2017, I had the excision surgery and the rest of the tumor, along with a 1 cm margin around it, were removed from my lower back. As recommended by my doctor and two others, I opted for local anesthetic (versus going under), so I was awake during the procedure—a slightly traumatizing experience where you don’t feel anything but are acutely aware of the tugging on your body as they carve out a sizeable chunk; the smell of your own flesh burning as they cauterize the blood vessels to prevent excessive bleeding post-surgery; and the push and pull of each stitch being threaded through your skin as they close the wound that would forever be a reminder of what once was, or perhaps, more profoundly, what could have been—“Thank God we caught it early” playing on repeat in my mind as if it were the theme song for what felt like the longest 45 minutes of my life. Needless to say, if I ever go through this again, I want to be knocked the fuck out for it.
I spent the remainder of that day and the several days that followed in an emotional daze where I felt both relieved and overwhelmed by what I’d just gone through, the full weight of being diagnosed with cancer and then having it cut from my body, all in a matter of two weeks, finally hitting me like a tsunami. Prior to surgery, I had made light of my situation for the sake of my family and friends—not wanting them to worry—but in doing so, I was forsaking my own feelings. The fact is, melanoma can be deadly and even though mine was caught early, I was scared.
Following doctor’s orders, I waited a full day before the ceremonious unveiling of the pristinely sutured wound for its first cleaning and redressing. A ghastly sight that no amount of explanation can prepare you for, I was suddenly faced with the aftermath of what my body had endured. Gone was the cute little mole, barely the size of a pencil eraser, and in its place a tethered mound of skin stretching three inches long whereby two sections of my back were pulled tautly together in an attempt to bridge the cavernous vacancy where the tumor once resided. The size alone was shocking enough, but then there’s the appearance, bearing such an uncanny resemblance to that of Frankenstein that I was both fascinated and terrified all at once. Cue emotional meltdown…again.
On January 13—after 10 days in—the stitches were removed and I received the final lab results. A dreaded day for most, Friday the 13th was anything but unlucky for me; it was the day I found out that I’m officially cancer-free.
Now that it’s over and I’ve had time to process this whole ordeal, I feel unbelievably fortunate that instead of saying, “I have cancer,” I can confidently say, “I had cancer,” my lower back playing host to a gnarly scar as proof—way cooler than a tramp stamp!
Writing about this experience is part of my healing process, but I hope that it also serves as a cautionary tale. If you have something that’s been bothering you, no matter how insignificant you think it is, I encourage you—no, I implore you—to have it checked out. Life can change in the blink of an eye. We are not immune to death, but we have the power to prolong its arrival. Be proactive, be your own advocate and don’t be afraid to ask questions or get a second opinion (I got three!). What might seem like a silly inquiry could very well save your life or in the very least, give you the peace of mind in knowing that all is okay.
As far as I’m concerned, kicking off 2017 with a little cancer scare is a good thing—the year can only go up from there, right?! Here’s to a lovely, splendid, happy and healthy new year! I, for one, am very excited about what’s to come and plan to embrace the chaos that is life and lean into every opportunity and experience that I can. I hope you do the same.
Happy New Year!
– S A D Y E E V Y N R E I S H