Skip to content

It's "Just Skin Cancer" Until it Happens to You

may-is melanoma-awareness-monthA mindless scroll of the newsfeed yesterday led me to discover that May is “Melanoma Awareness Month”. There it was an article about a rare type of metastatic (a fancy word for cancer) mole that can grow underneath your nail. Sight unseen hence the not so enduring nickname for this type of cancer “the silent killer”.

I know about Melanoma because I have had it. I remember when I received the news like I remember when the Challenger space shuttle exploded or when 9/11 happened. The details remain clear even twelve years later. When the call came, I was at my desk at ‘Guildford Chiropractic’ where I was working in my first associateship position just three years after graduating from Chiropractic college. The details of the conversation with the dermatologist fuzzy except for the moment of impact when I heard the sentence “invasive malignant melanoma…caught early…will need to b removed…plastic surgeon.” Fear set in and while it lives mostly in the background now it has never really left. Cancer does that to a person.

So naturally when I read the article yesterday, I immediately thought of that toenail on my left foot. The one with the weird black mark and suddenly the fear was at the forefront. Shortly after (I was out when I read the article) my husband found me crouched in the bathtub, puffy jacket still on, my iphone flashlight and nail clippers in hand performing minor surgery to determine if despite the annual mole check the cancer had returned. We never checked my nailbed. That nail has been sore. The mark is weird. Rational no. Necessary yes.

just-skin-cancer-blog-03I was diagnosed with Melanoma in 2007. An interesting trajectory had led me to the dermatologist who felt confident that the mole was “nothing to be worried about but should come off”. I was warned about this mole, a tiny dark mole on my lower left leg, three years earlier in Australia. In 2004 when I graduated from Chiropractic college, I moved to Australia for 9 months to do a locum. I was 30 years old and despite many moves within Canada and France this one felt significant (likely related to the common sentiment of family and friends that I would marry and never come back – something I was determined to prevent). Panic set in somewhere over Hong Kong and so did a rash on my leg. When it didn’t go away, I visited a doctor.

Australian doctors are experts when it comes to moles and to be honest if it hadn’t been for that rash, I would never have had anyone alert me to this tiny little mole and who knows if I would be writing this blog today. Melanoma is scary that way. The doctor wasn’t worried about my rash…but he was concerned about the look of the mole. He told me to keep an eye on it which I did, sort of, but life got busy. I was a new graduate trying to build a business and manage a six-figure debt, so I forgot about it until one day three years later while basking in the sun on a dock in Nelson, BC. I happened to look at the mole and suddenly my whole body felt tense. I’m not sure why other than I believe in the wisdom of the body. The mole was very dark and that felt worrisome. That was really the only sign.

I’ve always been an “I’ll do it myself” kind of person (just ask my mom – lol!). So naturally I didn’t need anyone’s help. To be honest I didn’t have many people to offer help anyway. I was living in Vancouver and my family were in Ontario. I had some friends and a dud boyfriend, but I was determined to go it alone and alone is pretty much how I felt through the entire process. There was a lesson to be learned there. I booked the appointment with the plastic surgeon and drove myself. I figured it was a small mole and its removal would be “no bjust-skin-cancer-blog-2019ig deal” and I would be back at work the next day. I did not return to work the next day and I did not drive myself home.

Once the type of melanoma has been established the next step is to classify the disease as to its degree of severity. Classifications for melanoma are called stages and the stage refers to the thickness, depth of penetration, and the degree to which the melanoma has spread. Treatment is dictated by stage and I was extremely lucky as my mole was still within the “stage one” classification. This meant that surgical removal was necessary but other treatment was not. In order to ensure complete removal of the cancer (as melanoma tends to grow down from the surface into other tissue) a two-centimeter radius around the mole was removed. The result was a deep lesion that required 30 internal stitches and a scar that will forever remind me of how very lucky I am to be alive.

In the end it was a bigger deal than I thought. I spent 4 days alone in my Vancouver apartment with my very swollen, mutilated leg elevated and my life flashing before my eyes. It was hard to stop the “what if’s” that began running through my mind. At 34 years old I wasn’t prepared to face my mortality so young. Like all wake-up calls there have been some wonderful lessons that have come from this experience. There have also been feelings of loss and grief. My life has changed significantly.

just-skin-cancer-blog-002Having always been someone who loves being outdoors it goes without saying that I loved the sun and having a suntan. I believed I looked better with a tan. There is no question that early sun exposure (especially sunburns), fair skin and having many moles are risk factors for melanoma. So is stress. Not many in the medical profession will acknowledge that connection with this type of cancer. For the first few years I was monitored every 6 months and I was terrified to be in the sun. The fear of cancer returning, especially in a place that I can’t see lingers in the recesses of my mind. However, with the passage of time I have tried to find the happy medium between wanting and needing to be outside enjoying the many benefits of the sun and being smart so that I don’t have to live in fear. Having kids has forced me to find this balance as I refuse to sit on the sidelines. So gone are the days of Panama Jack oil and marathon tanning sessions on the dock. Instead I avoid mid-day sun and lather on all-natural sunscreen (as much as one can lather on zinc-based products). I keep myself covered with hats, sun shirts and sarongs and I’m that mom that “makes” my kids wear full sleeve rash guards and lots of sunscreen.

While they resist it has become just one of those non-negotiable things we do in our home. Skin cancer does have a genetic link. There was a lot we didn’t know in the 1970’s and 1980’s including the dangers of sun overexposure. Perhaps if we did, I wouldn’t be promoting “Melanoma Awareness Month” and sharing my story. But then I would have missed out on those valuable life lessons I mentioned and perhaps the opportunity to save someone from a similar fate. To learn more about Melanoma in Canada check out www.melanomanetwork.ca and www.saveyourskin.ca/prevention/.

6 Join the Conversation

  1. Barb Dunlop says
    May 13, 2019 at 9:32 PM

    Good mentor for all. Thanks Angela

    • info@drangewellman.com says
      May 13, 2019 at 5:10 PM

      Thanks Barb!

  2. Lindsey Petherick says
    May 13, 2019 at 9:42 PM

    some great reminders in here to prevent and get checked rather than coast along (as I do!). Thanks Ange!

    • info@drangewellman.com says
      May 13, 2019 at 5:08 PM

      Prevention is key - especially for kids :)

  3. Lucinda Flavelle says
    May 14, 2019 at 12:40 AM

    Good reminder to get a regular all-over body check. My doctor did one this year for me.

    • info@drangewellman.com says
      May 14, 2019 at 8:06 AM

      Annual checks are a great preventative strategy...glad you got your MD to do one :)

Add Your Comment (Get a Gravatar)

Your Name

*

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.