I am a 40 year old woman, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, nurse, volunteer, photographer and lover of life.
I was first diagnosed with Melanoma in August of 2013 at the age of 38. My husband had noticed a mole on my neck that he thought “looked odd” (he is a physician but takes care of babies). I didn’t think much of it but made a dermatology appointment in case. You see, I am pretty much polka dotted with moles. After almost cancelling my appointment on Aug 7, 2013 because I had “too many other things going on”, I decided I should probably go. I met with an amazing physicians assistant who did a very thorough skin exam. I left a bit frustrated because she didn’t remove the mole but instead took a lot of pictures of it. She told me that Dr N would be in touch. Little did I realize that Dr N was a Melanoma Dr. I was so busy that I went on with my day running around to and fro with the kids. A few hours later while still in the car, I got a call from Dr N. She explained that she needed to see me the next day to remove the mole and she started talking about taking wide margins etc etc. I tuned half of it out since I was so worried about what I had to get done with the boys since they were starting school in a few days. I am a nurse by training. I know what Melanoma is, I know what these procedures are but some how I blocked all of this out and went on with my day. The next day I drove myself to my appointment and I quickly realized things were serious when they started taking tons of macro photographs of my neck. There was a resident, Dr N and a lovely nurse. They were beyond kind and kept asking me if I was OK . Dr N kept saying that she was glad she got the mole out (along with another pesky one under my armpit). When I stood up and left the room I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. When I saw the size of the bandage staring back at me I went weak in the knees and knew that this was more then just “a funny mole”. Tears began streaming down my face and I had to take a moment before I could call my husband to tell him how things had gone.
A few days later, the phone call that changed my life came. “Hi Tracy, this is Dr N…I have good news for you”. Great, I thought I don’t have cancer. Wrong. “You have Melanoma BUT we caught it early. You have what we call Melanoma in situ. I am very glad we removed it and took such wide borders and we caught it early.” These were the words I kept hearing. She then told me that I would need to have surgery to remove wider margins since that is how they treated Melanoma in situ. She also told me that I would be seeing her every three months. I hung up the phone and I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. Melanoma….me?? But Melanoma was a death sentence I thought? When I had graduated nursing school in 1998 the only memories I have of patients with Melanoma were ones who were dying in the hospital. How could this be good news?
As a few days went by and I starting doing a lot of reading online I quickly realized that what Dr N said was true…this was good news, no GREAT news. I am one of the lucky ones. I am lucky that my Melanoma was caught early. If caught in the earliest stages, melanoma is entirely treatable, but because it spreads quickly, early detection and immediate treatment is critical.
After my biopsy and before my surgery I had what is called a mole map. This is essentially medically necessary nude photos…oh so much fun…LOL! I am so grateful however, to have these pictures since they have become a very important part of my follow up care and visits. On Sept 5, 2013 I had my wide excision done on my neck and the pesky little severely dysplastic mole under my arm.
About a year after my initial melanoma and being bumped to six month visits, Dr N moved out of state and my new dermatologist became Dr L. We first met in August of 2014 and on our first visit she noticed a tiny 3mm mole on my right ankle that she thought had changed from the mole map CD images taken a year prior. She seemed pretty calm and removed it, leaving me with only two stitches and said that she would let me know when she heard the results. One week later while in the car again, I heard the words that were all too familiar: “you have melanoma, but the good news is we caught it early and it is in situ”. Again, I felt my knees go week and I thought to myself…really, again. I thought one and I was done? Within 48 hours, on September 5 2014 exactly one year after my last surgery, I was meeting Dr C a world renowned MOHS surgeon. He and his staff were amazing. We spent the entire day there and because of where this pesky 3 mm mole was I was left with a hole the width of a golf ball on my ankle. Thankfully by days end he had it patched up with a skin flap and I was left with 32 large external sutures (with a matching set underneath the skin) and a lovely compression Unna boot. What I thought was going to be simple turned into something a little bit bigger. It reminded me of how many times I heard people say “well at least it’s just skin cancer”. Let me just say this only once…..there is NO such thing as just skin cancer. While I am completely grateful that is was caught early this melanoma left me with a lot of pain, difficulty getting around and not being able to drive. Thankfully I have an amazing husband and fantastic mother who flew into town to help us. With the help of friends and family I bounced back quickly. I was able to travel to Italy for two weeks with my Mom which was a life changing experience.
In the mean time I had a few more biopsies done and one on my chest turned out to be severely dysplastic. Good news right…yes but what I quickly learned was that doesn’t mean that it’s over. Since there is a risk that severely dysplastic nevi are getting ready to convert to melanoma, wide excision is also advised for these guys too…just smaller margins. So on Nov 11 I once again had the pleasure of meeting with Dr C and he did the wide excision on my chest.
Three weeks later it was already time for my three month follow up with my dermatologist. Yes, the second Melanoma bought me closer follow up. That same day that I had my chest stitches removed I also earned three new sets of stitches….all on my arms. Two on the right and one on the left. This time when I met with Dr L she seemed more concerned. She told me that she thought I was in a hyperactive state of making melanomas. I am pretty sure that is not a state I want to be in….I would rather be in the state of Hawaii!! Needless to say I got a call a few days later and here is what I heard “you have another melanoma, but the good news is we caught it early”. This time the one on my forearm was the culprit. I had actually noiticed a slight change in it and I am glad I pointed it out to Dr Lampel. The one on my upper right arm was moderately abnormal and the one on my upper left arm was severely dysplastic. This time my knees didn’t buckle because I saw it coming. This time I actually took a big sigh of relief that it was only one melanoma and not three like she was worried about. I took a deep breath because although this one is a bit deeper then the others, it too was considered in situ.
The next step is to have a wide excision done on my forearm. They need to do 10mm borders this time since it was a bit deeper then the other two. This will be done by Dr M a surgical oncologist. He will also do the severely dysplastic mole on my other arm. I now also bought myself skin checks every two months. I also started on aspirin since some studies have shown reduced incidence in recurrence of Melanoma in women who take aspirin….it’s worth a try!
I have decided to share my story for many reasons. Having the love, support, positive energy and prayers from so many family and friends both near and far is incredibly powerful and gives me strength. I also hope to educate people on what melanoma is and how important it is to be sun safe, to get naked and check our skin monthly and to see a dermatologist at least annually.
Here is what I know for sure. I am strong, I am loved and I am certain that this experience has taught me to take a deep breath, slow down and remember what is most important. I live my life differently and without regret. I only have time for positive energy and to do the things that I am most passionate about. I have an amazing, loving and very supportive husband. Two boys that I love to the moon and back, incredible parents, a very strong sister and an amazing wealth of supportive family and friends. When I get overwhelmed I remind myself to take things one day at a time and one step at a time. I am not sick, I am not dying and I am going to do everything in my power to keep it that way. Whatever I have to do to stay healthy I am willing to do. I am one of the lucky ones who has great care and who’s Melanoma was caught early….three times. Even though I have a few hurdles ahead of me I am certain that I will only continue to grow stronger and my goal is to enjoy each day as much as I can.
I have so much love and gratitude in my heart for all those who have shown me so much love and support…I am truly humbled. Special thank you to my dear friend and amazing fellow photographer Michelle Prince of www.michellestudios.com for coming over and taking some pictures of me. I won’t lie I was having a hard time looking in the mirror and staring at the scars and the sutures and the bruises. Having Michelle take some pictures of me reminded me that beauty comes from within and truly lives in our hearts. No matter how many times I am cut, no matter how many scars I earn or how many stitches they place in me I am still the same person…or maybe even better. I will always try to remember to wear my scars proudly…or as my son says “they are badges of honor”. I will never stop smiling and my heart will always be tender. Thank you Michelle for reminding me that beauty is far beyond what we see at first glance. I am grateful we took these pictures and soon these small biopsy sites will be replaced with even bigger battle scars but I will know in my heart that they mean I am lucky and I survived.
I leave you with one of my favorite quotes as well as a link to an amazing video: Dear 16 year old Me.