By the time you read this, I may be in a hospital, being pumped full of toxic chemicals. Or, I might be in a living out my last months in a beach hut in Jamaica. Or, I may very well be doing the exact same things I was doing a month ago, before I found out I was a 25-year-old with cancer.
See, melanoma is one of those diseases where from one case to the next, everything changes. Survival rates range from awful to awesome. Some people never see skin cancer again after preliminary surgery, for others, after that surgery, it will have spread so sneakily, and so quickly, that they’ll be dead within the year.
So, this is my story. It’s a few words about the ability of modern medicine to save your life in 20 minutes or less, but only if you're on your game. Because the words, "You're lucky you caught it early" will only make you feel like it’s a fluke you’re still alive.
In October 2010, I noticed a little black spot on a mole on my foot. The mole had been there as long as I could remember, but I was pretty sure the spot was new. Regardless, it was easy to ignore considering all winter my feet were hidden in my snow boots.
It wasn't until June that I decided I really should get it checked out. My family doctor reassured me that the mole was likely benign, but she would cut out the spot for a biopsy just to be sure. Yet, a week and a half later, I got a call from the doctor’s office. They got my test results back, and the doctor wanted to see me tomorrow.
Now, in the Canadian health care system you can tell when something’s really wrong. It’s when all the usual waiting lists and line-ups suddenly disappear because they know if they leave you any longer things can get really bad, really fast. Suddenly, I was a priority patient. Suddenly, my doctor would make time for me tomorrow.
The next day, I was shuffled straight into the doctor’s consultation room. The doctor told me she didn’t have good news. They found cancer, she said. Fuck.
And then she told me it was malignant melanoma. I tried hard to pay attention, recognizing that this was really important information, but the word cancer had caused my brain to go poop.
Ten minutes later, I hit the street with a referral to see a specialist, feeling like this body I was in was no longer mine. This body had cancer. My brain entirely borked, I did the only thing I felt was appropriate. I went back to my office, and then to the gym, and a couple days later, and competed in a powerlifting competition and met national qualifying standards. That's right, I run marathons and powerlift. Who did cancer think it was to mess with me?
Of course, while I waited to see the specialist, I also wanted to find out everything possible about what we were now affectionately calling “the crab” (the word cancer comes from the Greek “karkinos” which means “crab”).
Google told me melanoma represents 75 percent of all skin cancer deaths, out of a total of only four percent of all skin cancers diagnosed. Caught in stage zero, before the cancer spreads past the epidermis (the first layer of your skin), it has a very high survival rate. But it’s also categorized as an “aggressive” cancer, meaning that it spreads very fast.
Once it’s grown down more than a millimeter, it gets exponentially more dangerous. And, once it’s in your lymph nodes, it has the potential to metastasize, which could mean, statistically, that I would be S.O.L.
The day of my appointment with my specialist, all I wanted to hear was that I was definitively, 100 percent stage zero and that they would cut the crab out, give me a pile of SPF 75, and send me on my way. Instead, examining my foot (with what I later leaned was a dermascope), the doctor exclaimed “Well, that’s got to come out!” and picked up the phone, asking the nurse to schedule me in during his lunch hour the next day.
He told me that the procedure they would do was called a wide local excision under local anesthetic, which removes the mole along with a diameter of healthy tissue around it to determine how far its spread. He also told me that he would know nothing about how bad it was until the whole thing had been sent off to a lab for biopsy. The entire procedure lasted less than 20 minutes, and I’m hoping those 20 minutes were all that was needed to save my life.
In a few days, I’ll know what stage the cancer’s at, and whether or not I was one of those people who’s lucky she caught it early. For now, I can tell you a few things I learned:
-- Living in wintery Canada doesn’t exempt you from getting melanoma.
-- Tanning beds are for losers, but just because you’ve never seen the inside of one doesn’t make you exempt either.
-- Neutrogena SPF 45 spray-on sunscreen smells like heaven.
-- Wide brim sunhats look a lot better with a casual pair of shorts than you think.
-- Learning that there was something in your body that could have killed you if you had left it alone is terrifying. You will feel like a fool for waiting any amount of time for waiting to get something checked out when you find out that it is, in fact, cancer.
For now, my fate is in the hands of doctors who don’t know me and a cancer that wants to kill me. I think about how powerless this should make me feel, but instead I’ve never felt more calm, bold and ready.
Churchill said that courage is the most important quality, because it is that which guarantees all others. I might have cancer, but I also have loads of courage. So, melanoma, bring it on.