Hi everyone! Before I jump in, I figured it would be appropriate to introduce myself. My name is Grace Wenzel, and I am a 23-year-old labor and delivery nurse living and working in Washington, DC. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and found my way to the east coast for undergrad at Georgetown University where I studied nursing. After graduating in May of 2018, I landed a job on a busy labor and delivery unit at a hospital here in DC. Four months into my first ‘big girl’ job, I found my world turned upside down when I was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma.
I’d had a very early stage melanoma surgically removed from my back during my freshman year of college in 2015; a scary experience, but the surgeon got clean margins, my sentinel lymph node biopsy was negative, and I had clean chest x-rays for three years after my wide excision. I visited the dermatologist every three months for two years, then every six month after that. I saw my surgeon every six months for the first three years after my excision, then was given his blessing to stop seeing him and stop getting biannual chest x-rays. I was told there was a roughly 10% chance of the melanoma recurring at some point in my lifetime. After that, I moved on in a lot of ways; I rarely, if ever, gave any serious thought to my melanoma returning.
Not even a year after being released from the care of my surgical oncologist, I found myself at my primary care doctor’s office for suspicious symptoms (weight loss, night sweats, chest pain) that had been concerning me for a couple of months. He immediately ordered a chest x-ray, and later that day I found out there were two (pretty sizeable) tumors in my right lung. One lung biopsy, a few more scans, and many, many tears later, I found myself sitting in an exam room in front of an oncologist, (who I would come to know and love and trust with my life), hearing my official diagnosis of stage IV melanoma for the first time. I was twenty-two.
All of that was a year ago, nearly to the day, actually. That fateful chest x-ray was on October 11th, 2018; I saw my oncologist for the first time on October 17th and my first day of treatment was October 29th. And what a year it has been. I never thought this would be my life. There are days that I am angry, days that I am sad, days that I am happy, and days that I am all of those things all at once.
Every day, though, I try to be grateful. I have met some amazing people because of melanoma; people I would have otherwise never met had I not been dropped in the middle of this fierce storm that is cancer as a young twenty-something. I have learned more about myself in the past year than I thought possible – what I value, what I am passionate about, how I want to leave my mark on this world, how to be flexible when plans change (and then change again). I have become a better nurse because of my experience as a patient. I have cried and screamed and shouted about the unfairness of it all. I have laid in a hospital bed overcome with grief and unsure about how much longer I would live. I have felt the love and support of so many people. I have been damn thankful for the chance to wake up every day.
When I look in the mirror, I am reminded of where I have been so far on this journey. My scars tell my story – the long, crooked scar on my back where it all started nearly five years ago now, the scar on my tush where they removed one of my tumors last fall to do genetic testing (I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I really did have a butt tumor), the still-fresh scar across my belly where they removed a rapidly growing tumor (and my left kidney and adrenal gland) over the summer. The unknowns ahead in terms of my treatment are overwhelming and many. There are days when the weight of that reality is very heavy, but I know one thing for sure: I am not done telling my story. I hope you’ll follow along with me as I share it.