Last fall, I was 24 years old and I had heard my friend mention that she had recently gone to the dermatologist to get a full body check and something about her mentioning that she randomly decided she wanted to go stuck with me. Being a fair-skinned, redhead I knew that I had a higher risk to develop skin cancer than most people, but I always just thought ‘it won’t happen to me’.
I’m a healthy, young girl who wears sunscreen most of the time, wants to lay out on the beach to get some light color, gets an occasional sunburn, but overall is good at managing her skin, so I’m thinking I will be able to go into this scheduled dermatology appointment and leave with confidence and a clear mind knowing that I did the right thing by getting everything checked.
Little did I know that I would leave that appointment with two shave biopsies, where they just take the first layer of any spot that they think has a chance for being irregular. The doctor did a full skin check on me, and she decided that she wanted to take two of my spots for further testing. I remember feeling like ‘wow, I’m glad I came!’
Shave biopsies are just the beginning step to when things look ‘off’ or atypical. A lot of the times the biopsies come back and there isn’t anything wrong, and the doctor just took them off as a precautionary step. These don’t require any stitches (normally) and just heal up with some neosporin and a bandaid.
Well, both of my biopsies came back atypical, meaning that they were pre-cancerous spots that would need to be further removed. The first spot was on the back of my right calf and I remember thinking, ‘that LITTLE freckle was a pre-cancerous spot?!’ It was so tiny, like the size of a pencil point but it was dark. I was just thankful that my doctor caught it.
She also caught a spot on my right breast that was fairly large, about the size of a pencil eraser (yes, they compare everything to pencils at the derm!) but I had realized that it was either growing or it was changing shape, so she took that for biopsy and sure enough, it came back atypical.
That spot on my breast was so close to my nipple that I was actually going to need to go to a plastic surgeon to get it removed so that she didn’t do any further damage or scarring to my breast.
When I got these phone calls, I just remember thinking that I am so glad that I went when I did because I clearly needed to have a full body skin check.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I got the spot on my right calf removed and had about 5 stitches to keep it all together. My right breast was done at a plastic surgeons office and it was a humbling experience. I was only given local anesthesia so I was awake during the whole thing. My eyes wondered down during the procedure and I really had never seen a gash so deep or bleeding so much – this wasn’t just your typical cut.
I was given 12 stitches total on my right breast, and the plastic surgeon was able to do almost all of them underneath my skin so that it wouldn’t leave a big scar. Luckily today, almost a year later, it looks completely normal and I’m very thankful for the doctor, but further thankful that both of those tests were deemed complete after being further removed.
So I was in the clear. I made my six month appointment, since I knew it would be smart for me to come back in six months.
When June rolled around, I had noticed some other spots that I wanted the doctor to look at so it was perfect timing for another appointment.
So what am I looking for in these spots? Honestly, just anything that has changed at all or catches my eye for being ‘new’. Thankfully, I know my body pretty well, but obviously I’m a freckle-y girl and have a ton of spots all over! They are often darker than normal or for me, have been pinker than normal. I don’t have any misshaped spots, just like very dark (unlike my brown freckles) or really pink.
Lo and behold at the 6-month follow up, I needed to get more spots removed.
P.S. I think that maybe over 20 people have now seen me completely naked. At first I was like ‘ughhhh this is so awkward’, but now I’m like ‘okay please check everywhere!!! Need to see inbetween my toes? My underarms? My butt? Just check!”
I left that day with three more shave biopsies, which all came back atypical, but wouldn’t require any more stitches.
So four more months passed and I noticed a few spots on my upper left leg that just didn’t seem right. They were very pink and they were growing and my rule to myself is, if it catches my eye, I need to go get it looked at. There is a reason it is catching my eye.
I called the doctor back and said I had some more spots that I would like to come in and get checked and she obviously thought that was a good idea. So within two weeks, I went in and had three more spots removed. I was expecting them to come back with either clear margins (full removal complete) or like the others where I would need more stitches.
That’s when I got a call. It was Friday and I was doing some work at a coffee shop when I saw that I had a call from a strange number. I answered the phone and was met with my doctor’s voice on the other line. I immediately got nervous, because normally if a doctor is calling you, it doesn’t mean good things.
Their policy about calling is that they will call you if they need to explain more to you or you need to come back, so I knew something was up. But usually it is the office who does the calling, so to hear directly from the doctor was immediately concerning.
My doctor let me know that the spot on my leg was melanoma and that I have skin cancer. I remember partially blacking out while also trying to listen because I know I needed to be an adult and try to remember everything she was saying to me so I could know what next steps I needed to take.
I was so scared.
I cried more than I have in a long time.
To save some time, I’ll try to make this as brief as I can, but basically I was told I would need to go to the Penn Pigment and Lesion center on one of the next upcoming Mondays (the only day they see new patients) and they would discuss my next steps. I would meet with the Dermatology + Oncology doctor, and then the Surgeon.
I was panicked because that next week Tom and I were supposed to leave for a seven day trip to California and I wasn’t going to make it to the clinic on Monday because they didn’t have my information, and then the next Monday we would be away. The thought and idea of canceling the trip was on my mind because I would do anything to get rid of this cancer.
I spent that whole weekend at home with my parents, figuring out treatment options and what the next steps would be. Emotionally, I was not okay that weekend. I slept in bed with my mom, she tried to distract me by taking me to get my nails done and make dinner with me, but all I could think about was the fact that I had skin cancer.
Had it already spread to my lymph nodes?
Where else has it spread?
Am I going to die?
I thought about it all.
My doctor called me the next Monday basically reassuring me that I NEEDED to go on vacation and that she just highly recommends people get into Penn within one month. She told me that I would be silly to not go and nothing would happen. But you can imagine that this was really hard for me to do. I just wanted to be better.
But we went on vacation. We had a fun time. I was able to put this beside me and try to focus on the vacation.
The Monday after I got back, I had an appointment at Penn, where I was seen by two dermatologists and a surgeon. Based on my test results from the initial biopsy, the doctors feel confident enough that they can take it all out by excision. They will then check the full biopsy and check to make sure that they removed all of the melanoma.
The excision will be over 8cm long and will leave a gnarly scar, but if that’s what it takes to get rid of it, they can leave me with any scars. And hey, it’ll look pretty badass, right?
I pat myself on the back for being so proactive. I hope I can encourage others to be as proactive. Even if you tan and don’t get sunburn, it doesn’t hurt to go check, does it? I’ve heard some people tell me they don’t want to go because they are afraid they will have skin cancer and I sit there and scratch my head.
I could have SAVED my life by going when I did.
This will be a battle I’ll have to fight for the rest of my life. I can no longer go and lay on the beach like I once did. I’m going to need to wear sunscreen every single day, no matter what season it is. But I’m going to win this battle.
I’ll also be getting full body photography so that I can keep pictures of my body on hand and when I notice a new spot show up, I’ll be able to compare it to my old skin and see if there is a difference.
I always jokingly shared on my Instagram about going to get your skin checked, but now I’m preaching it. Just do it. Do it for me, for your family, for your friends, for your pets. It is SO worth it.
I hope I can update you all more with good results after my procedure and thanks for supporting me in my battle against melanoma like I knew you all would do.
** UPDATE: pictures ahead will have blood and stitches, so please, if this doesn’t sit well with you, why don’t you go check out a recipe for Flourless Almond Butter Cookies 🙂
This first picture is the spot of melanoma after the first shave biopsy. I had just found out that day that it was melanoma. The actual melanoma was about half the size of this cut, but they took a little bit off when shaving it.
Here is the scar from the surgery. They took off three inches in a ‘football’ shape and then sewed me back up. 12 total stitches!
**Update as of 11/9/18
So I had my follow up appointment at Penn this morning and I was starting to get anxious about the results because I hadn’t heard anything back from them.
I know they say no news is good news, but I’m the kind of person who needs to know either way. So when I hadn’t gotten a call, I started to really freak out. I mean they said 7-10 days and today was day 14. I tried calling on Wednesday but goodness, is it a process to try and get through to a specialty department at a hospital.
I felt discouraged after calling a few different numbers and thought I was wasting my time, so I figured I would just wait until Friday morning when my appointment was.
When I went in this morning, I felt really anxious and just wanted to hear good news. What I did know was that they would be taking out the two stitches that held my scar together (yes, just two because the rest are dissolve-able and underneath my skin). I have about 14 total stitches, but only two for removal since the others will eventually melt.
I got unchanged, and sat on the chair, waiting for the doctor to come in.
She came in and asked me how I was feeling and then immediately said to me, “They got all of the melanoma and are really happy with the results!” I was so relieved.
All of the margins were clear and it hadn’t penetrated underneath any farther than what they removed, which means that I won’t need any other further treatment. And that makes me the happiest.
I will just need to get skin checks every 3-6 months for the next five years, and then gradually move them out to bi-annually and then annually.
And you better believe that I will be lathering up every. single. day. I bought this face sunscreen that is meant to be worn daily, even if the sun isn’t out or it’s winter. It had gotten incredible reviews on Amazon and I love it so far – not greasy and helps your skin looking healthy. I’m no longer allowed to just only wear sunscreen if I’m going to the beach, and hey, that’s fine with me if it means that I won’t have any more melanoma or any wrinkles 😉
Anyway, the doctor took out the stitches and sent me with a care plan and told me that I was all set. It felt so good.
I’m sharing the picture of what it looked like right when she took out the stitches! I will now put Vaseline on it every day for two weeks and then can put a scar treatment cream on it!
Do you have any favorite scar treatment creams?
Thank you everyone for the support!!! <3
**NEW UPDATE AS OF 11/30/18
So I’m back with another update and part of this is just me selfishly wanting to talk through what happened within the past month since I last updated you all. I feel like writing it all out has been therapeutic for me and has helped me to cope with the difficulties.
So when we last left off, I got my stitches out and was told by the doctor that everything was in the clear. There was no more melanoma in my left leg, which was a huge relief ! So after that, the next Tuesday, I had to go to the original dermatologist who found the melanoma to get a spot (not melanoma but just precancerous) on my upper right butt cheek removed.
I went into that appointment thinking I would need one or two stitches after the removal, but I ended up having to get 8 stitches again, which really shocked me. I was laying there as she was stitching me up and I remember thinking “wow, this is really taking a long time…”
When she was finished I asked how many stitches and seriously couldn’t believe it. My leg had 13 stitches and I just got those out, was feeling great, could walk without pain, and that morning had JUST done my first cardio workout in two weeks. I remember feeling that sweat drip down and being like FINALLY! Two weeks seems like a long time when you can’t workout at all.
That feeling of being free ended really quickly when I found out I would be sidelined again.
I left the office in tears, feeling frustrated and even worse in so much pain, hobbling around Philadelphia to get to my car. I called my mom and dad crying because I 1) didn’t know the surgery was going to be that big and I wish they were there, 2) because I was in so much pain, the local anesthesia wasn’t strong enough, and 3) because I was now unable to do any sort of movement again and even walking hurt.
I was feeling pretty down in the dumps again but was thankful that everything came back melanoma free and from a cancer standpoint, I was in the clear.
I got my stitches out two weeks later and towards the end of my stitches I was indeed able to workout, so that was really nice and felt good.
So things were finally starting to get back to normal again, and two weeks ago I was at my hairdresser appointment and had just mentioned to her to let me know if she saw anything in my scalp that didn’t look normal.
She has been my hairdresser for my whole life, so she knew about my melanoma (she does my mom’s hair too!). Well, when she was coming through my hair, she saw a big spot. Big is a relative term, but it was about the size of my pinky nail. It was dark too, and when I asked her to take a picture so I could see it, I was immediately alarmed.
I knew it didn’t look right. I actually couldn’t settle down the rest of the time I was there, which sucks cause isn’t getting your hair done supposed to be relaxing?!?
Well I raced home and was crying again (shocker) and had my mom and dad go through my entire scalp with a flashlight and comb. They found FOUR of these huge brown spots all over my head and I was so overwhelmed with fear thinking that they had spread all over. It was that same feeling of panic when I found out I had melanoma. I just wanted to get in to the doctor and find out if it was melanoma.
It was late at night, so I called first thing the next day and all of my doctors were booked up. I was pretty emotional on the phone and my dad’s dermatologist agreed to see me the following day.
That day was rough. I was so upset all day and couldn’t relax. My good friend Madeline came over to help keep me entertained and that was the only saving grace.
So I went to the appointment, the doctor took two shave biopsies (decided since all of them looked alike that he didn’t need to take all four) and left me with two cuts on my head. He had to use the saudering (sp?) machine to burn the veins to make them stop bleeding… that was fun.
Anyway, the doctor didn’t show too much concern and that kind of made me feel relieved. He said he has seen spots like this before where they aren’t anything too serious, so that was nice to know. He told me to go enjoy my weekend and my holiday (Thanksgiving) and not give too much worry to it.
I got the results back on Monday of this week and found out that they were benign. Praise. The. Lord.
So I’m back to being cancer free!!! Also, my full body photography photos came in so anytime I see a spot, I can compare it to them to see if there is anything unusual or new.
I’m ready to wrap up 2018 and kiss it goodbye.
2019 is going to be a good one for my health.
P.S. this is the most updated picture of my scar!