When life knocks you down,
roll over, look at the stars
You don’t notice how often people slap you affectionately on the shoulder… until you’re diagnosed with a melanoma there.
After deciding to travel, there is a mental list of items that need to be ticked off before I go. One of these is a full medical check. I’ve had everything. I’ve been needled, poked, prodded, sliced and impaled more times in the past few weeks than I care to remember. While usually quite protective of my body around others, I’ve had to learn to just lie there and let it happen. At times it’s been surprisingly easy. And like the dedicated student I am, I’ve been passing my exams with ease.
So upon receiving a call from the clinic some weeks ago, I became panicked when told that one of my tests had a bad result and I needed to come in urgently. At this point there had been so many test that I hardly knew which it could be. The receptionist quickly informed me that it was the lesion that had been taken for biopsy.
As all Aussies should, I had included a standard skin check as part of my medicals. Somehow, at age 32 it was the first I’d had. My doctor’s optimistic and light bedside manner meant that I’d done it and thought nothing of it when she informed me that she wanted to remove one particular freckle that appeared darker than the others on my shoulder. She explained that they would remove it, right here and send it for testing. Should there be any concerns I would need to come back to have a larger area removed. When I say I thought nothing of it, I actually mean I clenched my eyes shut and looked in the other direction while she knifed it out of me for testing (see above for fearful expression and said evil freckle).
And then she went on holidays.
Before we continue on my medical journey, let’s take a sidebar to focus on some key points:
– I’m age 32
– While I didn’t spend much time in the sun in my twenties, I have done so in the last four years I’ve been in Sydney – mostly protected
– I was sunburnt quite badly as a child. More than once. ‘No hat no play’ didn’t exist until I reached my second year of high school. Before that, there was no responsibility taken by the schools I was at.
– My mother is a redhead (Gerry with the red hair)
– My father’s skin is also far from olive
– None of us have ever had a skin check before
– There is no history of melanoma in my family
– Melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer
– If undiscovered, a Melanoma will grow its own little supply chain into your bloodstream. This can happen in as little as just 6 weeks
– Once in your bloodstream, nek minnit it’s pretty much guaranteed to go to your lymph nodes
– Your lymph nodes filter blood as it circulates throughout the body. You do the maths on how this story could end…
– I was never a person who applied sunscreen on a hot day. More with purpose for outdoor events
– Sometimes I leave the house and realise too late that it’s hotter than I expected. And inevitably return home with what we politely call ‘some colour’. Namely an angry red.
Now back to the journey of prodding, poking, slicing and needling….
The Doctor (cough… medical student) looking after test results in my real doctor’s absence was the one who had called me urgently to the clinic in a panic. By the time I arrived, I’d googled enough to know what was coming. While heavily concerned, time had given me the opportunity to process. So when the Doctor (let’s call him Student Doctor from here on to politely reflect his ineptness as a Doctor) informed me that the biopsy result showed melanoma (insert the screaming emoji here – because that’s how he delivered the news to me), I had already made peace with it. He did qualify that it was early stages, and that I would need to see a specialist. To be perfectly honest – his delivery was full panic stations. To the point that I felt inclined to comfort him somewhat, before addressing it with him. In response he told me that perhaps I was very chilled (who is he kidding – that scream emoji is my most frequently used), or perhaps he was an over anxious person (BINGO!), but it was cancer and it should be addressed urgently. He then proceeded to call me and call me and call me and call me in the days that followed, wanting to check whether his referral had gotten me an appointment, wanting to correct the expectations he’d set on me getting an appointment in the first place because actually he didn’t understand the process the first time but now he does, wanting to confirm that I definitely had an appointment now. etc
Probably no need to further describe the eyeroll that this guy was…
An appointment was scheduled with the Melanoma Institute. It took place today. In the weeks between the two appointments there were many challenges. Mostly in managing the expectations of others around me. It was a very small insight into what those with serious diseases actually experience. Ultimately I found it was best to be at peace with it myself, in order to not let the responses of others affect me too much. Easier said than done. And on the scale of seriousness, this should have been quite low.
So the day of the knifing finally came today. I had a lovely (very freaking pricey) surgeon – we’ll call him Dr McLovesGolf. We had so much in common for discussion as he removed the greater area around my far-from-innocent freckle. His non medical student level professionalism undid the damage of Student Doctor when he gave me a more realistic diagnosis: My melanoma was pre-cancerous. Removing the greater area was just a precaution. My lymph nodes were fine. I am fine. Absolutely no need to panic. The news really couldn’t have been better than if the biopsy clinicians had called to advise they’d made a complete mistake in the first place.
Now I have a bandaged shoulder and a number of stitches. It’s throbbing with pain, but I don’t have cancer 🙂
So what have I learned that I’d like to share?
– Slip Slop Slap. I’ll be doing it like a crazy person now, because I am susceptible to further melanoma. I may also become a paranoid shade vampire.
– Because I’m going to be travelling, as opposed to chained to a desk under a shaded canopy of office buildings, I’ll be keeping a keen eye on my freckles and my moley moley moleys
– While annual skin checks are recommended, I’ll be going twice yearly
– I’ve downloaded the Sun Smart app, which tells me what the UV is now according to my location, and what the max will be today
– If the UV rating will be any more than 3, I’ll be avoiding the sun like a lurky little shade dweller
– I don’t leave the house now without applying sunscreen. I have multiple bottles of 50+ in my handbag if you ever need it
And most importantly of these life lessons:
– I have some very supportive people in my world. I’m eternally grateful for all of them
– You can’t change this life that is carved out for you. You get to make decisions, but sometimes there is a baseline in life that can’t be avoided. How does this relate? Well, had I not had the opportunity to review my career, I wouldn’t have decided to travel. And had I not decided to travel there would have been no skin check. So thank you destiny for looking after me!
And finally, once I no longer have this bandage, I look forward to more shoulder slapping camaraderie in my life again! Bring it on, my shoulder slapping friends! Let’s get slap happy…