“Do you have a moment to talk?” my doctor asked me over the phone. When I answered that I did, she said, “It’s melanoma.”
A few months before this, I had noticed a mole on my knee. I have a lot of moles, but this one seemed to come on fast and was starting to change colors. I asked my friend who is an ER doctor about it, and she said, “It doesn’t look like anything, but go see your dermatologist.” I also asked the primary physician I share with my daughter during a Well-Baby visit; she said the same thing and gave me a referral. I saw the dermatologist and she said, “It doesn’t look like anything, but we will biopsy it.” So with a small numbing shot and quick use of a knife, it was removed and went off to the lab.
Then I got the call. The good news was that we caught it early. It was only .5 mm deep, which is not very deep by melanoma standards.
The next step was to get it excised—removed along with a 1-cm circle of the skin around it. This I wasn’t thrilled about. When I went to the surgeon, he drew a circle around the mole to indicate the amount of skin he was going to take. I freaked out. It looked huge. The procedure was relatively painless, but the surgery site is right where my knee bends so the healing process was a bit slow and unpleasant.
Well, when I went back to the dermatologist three months later (I have to go every three months now), I had another mole removed that intuitively felt “funny” to me. Everyone said the same thing again—that it doesn’t look like anything, but get it checked. Again, it was melanoma. This one was even more shallow—.2 mm—and it has healed well since it was on my leg in a non-bendy part.
Since this time, I have met with an oncologist and had a PET scan. Thankfully, the cancer hasn’t traveled into my body. Here is why I am so lucky. I went to see the doctor early. I didn’t wait. Every doctor I have met with said that I saved my life by coming in. It’s hard to imagine that this is all it took.
As a surfer girl, I have spent plenty of time in the sun, but I think of myself as somewhat responsible. I wear sunscreen, but I rarely (if ever) reapply and, often, I wouldn’t put sunscreen on my legs. As a Southern California surfer, I usually wear a full wet suit, and for years I have sat in the shade of an umbrella. I have not tanned in the sun. Okay, okay, when I was a teenager I wore baby oil and “laid out” for hours, but I have never been in a tanning bed. Melanoma doesn’t run in my family, and I tan easily and rarely burn. What I am saying is that I probably only get as much sun as the average Southern Californian beach-goer. If all this makes you nervous, that is my point. I want you to take the following precautions.
The Mayo Clinic and the American Academy of Dermatology suggest you avoid the sun during the middle of the day, wear sunscreen year-round (a broad-spectrum with an SPF of at least 30) and reapply every two hours, wear protective clothing along with sunglasses and hats, avoid tanning beds, and become familiar with your skin so you will notice changes. Go and see your dermatologist every year for an annual skin check, and go right away if you notice anything suspicious. I would encourage you to go even if you just have a “funny feeling” about something. Be well, surfer girls!