I've struggled with whether or not to share this with you, my good friends and total strangers. Even though it has nothing to do with meetings, it's had such a profound impact on my life recently (and caused me to be pretty quiet here the past few months) that I think I will talk about it here after all.
This fall I boarded a health roller coaster known as melanoma. Like all cancers, the earlier you catch this most vicious of skin cancers, the better off you are. Unfortunately, mine wasn't caught all that early. The dermatologist found a tumor on my leg the week before Thanksgiving, and less than three weeks later I was in surgery to have what's known as a wide local excision (which now is healing into a lovely 10-inch-long scar on my thigh), and a sentinel lymph node biopsy to determine whether or not the melanoma had spread through my lymph system, which is its preferred mode of travel.
After too many weeks of post-surgical pain, healing, and crippling anxiety while waiting for the pathology results, I finally got the word recently that the area around the tumor and the sentinel nodes both turned up negative for cancer cells. If I remain recurrence-free for five years, I'm most likely out of the woods. And the chances of recurrence are pretty low for someone in my clinical circumstances (my surgeon says 5 to 7 percent).
If I hadn't blown out the knee on my non-melanoma leg during my post-surgery gimp phase, I'd be doing dances of joy (and if anyone was wondering why that woman in the nice suit was limping around in sneakers throughout PCMA, this would be the reason). But I am dancing inside.
Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to take skin cancer seriously. A few facts to ponder:
- Approximately 47,700 cases per year are currently diagnosed in the United States alone, and the incidence is increasing at the rate of 4.3% per year, one of the fastest increases in occurrence rates of all cancers. The American Cancer Society estimates that there are currently 480,000 cases of melanoma in America today and that there are 7,700 deaths per year from the disease.
I have had the honor of getting to know many people over the past few months who aren't as lucky as I have been and have moved on to Stages 3 and 4 of this horrible, devious disease that likes to take up residence in lungs, liver, and brains, among other body hot spots. Through immunotherapy and chemotherapy, clinical trials, and surgery upon surgery, their spirit and will to live, their encouragement to keep on fighting, and their ability to let go when the time comes to let go, has changed my life as much as, if not more than, my diagnosis did.
But you do not want to have to join this club.
Please, please, please, I beg you to get that weird mole checked, to challenge your doctor to biopsy it even if they say it's no big deal (as my doc has done for several years before I insisted on getting a second opinion--just in time, as it turns out). Even if there's nothing wrong, scan your skin, and that of your loved ones, regularly, and know the risk factors and the ABCDs of melanoma. Make your kids wear sunscreen, no matter how much they yip about it. While you're at it, slather some on yourself.
It could save your life. And your life, my dear friends and total strangers, is so very, very precious.