Skin cancer is no big deal, right? I believed this as I continued to love beach days, boat days, and time outside from the moment I was born until a few years ago. I truly thought that I would never have skin cancer and if I did, it could just be removed in the doctor office and back to the beach we go!
Metastatic melanoma is deadly; more than that, the things we cancer patients go through should be enough to scare everyone out of the sun. Multiple surgeries, embarrassing spot checks with a group of dermatologists, knowledgeable oncologists recommending radiation to live, and choosing to be part of a clinical trial as there is no known cure for this disease. Does any of that freak you out?
Ignorance is Bliss
I’m hoping it does! It’s not me wishing you any of what’s become my norm, NONE OF IT! What I’ve noticed is that ignorance is bliss when it comes to melanoma. There is some sort of selective hearing; mostly, I find the family and friends can’t deal. I never preach, I never tell others what to do. I think I might be the poster child for what can go wrong and people don’t want to be reminded.
I still go to the beach, I still love the beach. Sanctuary, balance, and peace are found listening to the surf, watching the waves. I do it differently now. Beyond the usual sunscreen, I wear SPF clothing. If sitting, I keep moving position even though I’m under an umbrella. Yes, I even have a shade tent. I PACK…for the beach.
Sounds a bit much? This is life with melanoma. I tend to go to the beach for walks now versus the day. Cloudy days are my favorite. I check the UV index often, not out of paranoia but I consider it knowledge for my day. My love of boating is painfully not fulfilled any more. Spot checks and clinical trial fatigue are the norm.
Does this sound extreme? This is nothing compared to what I and others been through at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. This is my life, no complaints as I’m so very happy to be here! Whether patient like Kevin S. Anderson who believed his melanoma was one and done, or me learning to live differently with the hope of many more years, lessons about skin cancer are costly.
Life changing forever, melanoma is now part of me. While I am disease free (YES!), cancer brings a whole new mind set and melanoma a whole new lifestyle. Please consider what you can do to incorporate sun safety into your life. Sensible measures may save you from life altering melanoma.
Read about melanoma. Educate yourself about melanoma. Be afraid, be sun shy. Stay alive! And thanks for signing up to follow my blog! I love to hear from you in the comments!
This blog idea has been a long time coming. There are hard parts with cancer treatment; there are parts that are nearly as tough as our mind makes them! It’s that balance idea and also, I’ve learned to not suppose, guess, or imagine how things will be.
This is written not to frighten, but to inform. It’s a brief description of my radiation experience in 2017. It’s taken some time to process this part of the healing. I’ve kept my mask in the basement, stumbling on it every now and then reminds me of how challenging this was and hopefully, how life saving it is. The pictures were taken the other day, just to show what the mask looks like. If you are considering radiation, remember each experience is unique. Ask me a question if you’d like!
Learning takes on many forms, and this treatment taught me that I don’t always know how I will react, that I am human, and that I am braver than I think. One piece of my metastatic melanoma treatment was radiation. After multiple excisions and healing, the time came for radiation. Conferring with radiation oncologists at Dana Farber, a local team was most sensible as treatment is Monday through Friday.
As a Mom and librarian, I’ve always enjoyed projects with children and teens. Mask making was a favorite, whether paper mache or natural construction. I’d never really thought I’d have my own face sculpted, much less my own personal mask!
This took place at yet another location; the measurements, the warm towels, the casting of my mask. Precision and professional knowledge are key; the medical staff of two worked well together, and in no time at all the drape of some mesh, fishnet substance formed a likeness of me.
Well, not really. My mask fit me but there was little likeness to the flesh and bones person that was to wear it. The real me had another lesson ahead!
Mentioned earlier, there are parts of treatment that we cancer patients don’t quite anticipate. Questions are asked, caregivers take notes and listen hard, but no oncologist, medical person, counselors, or others are able to understand the human reaction, the emotional element. Humans are unique individuals!
Claustrophobic tendencies are not me; I endure scans, MRIs, small closets, and tiny spaces with no concerns. On the first day with the local radiation team, more measurements were noted, the irradiation location exposed on the mask, and equations exchanged. No problem.
Turn of the Screw (by Henry James)
And then, while I lay on the platform they screwed my head to the table. I knew this was coming, I knew the process. Momentary, solitary panic only known to me ensued. Tense body parts, mind wondering how I could ever escape if need be, and a foreboding feeling in every inch of my body.
Fear was trying to drown me. to hold me down, so I pushed back with courage, the desire to heal, and hope beyond this damn radiation. The staff was professional, moving through their routines with more measurements, a warm blanket, and conversation to access my level of comfort. What great acting I did! This was the greatest mask of a lifetime, the emotional one!
Radiation treatments to my left cheek continued for weeks, 5 times each week. A friend had mentioned that he had found waiting room comaraderie in his Boston radiation treatment; my more rural setting meant less of that, though two of us passed each other daily, bestowing sincere well wishes on each other, smiles robust with empathy.
That Healthy Glow
Ironically, my face, the same one that has had multiple melanoma excisions most likely do to sun damage, was brilliantly red after just a few treatments. This “hot spot” focused most of the controlled dose very specifically. My mask provided boundaries for the radiation staff, a way to zero in.
Risks are many when considering radiation. For me, the lack of alternatives meant this was the next step in my path to being disease free. Side effects vary depending on the course of radiation; each situation requires different radiation calculations.
Treatment left me exhausted as it has a cumulative effect. My face was, and still is, super sensitive to the sun. I also have dental trays made with my dentist. Radiation damages salivary glands which helps protect teeth so daily use of the trays with fluoride may protect my teeth. Hearing is questionable as something has changed in that regard.
Radiant, Just Like Wilbur!
Would I do it again? Absolutely! I’ve always been one to shy away from various drug solutions and to work through to a healthier me. Cancer is different and fights back with vengeance, learning new ways to work around medical treatment. This time I’ve chosen to try all options that make sense for my metastatic melanoma because I need to kick this thing called cancer.
Radiation treatment was trickier for me than any other part of this process and I surprised myself with the emotional challenge of being so helpless (and literally stuck!) while the immobility was essential to safe treatment. Each day, each moment I knew it to be the right decision. I learned that each of us reacts differently and that I’m stronger than I think!
Inspiration came when treatment was over, my body whooped, my face fried, and my grandson gave me a hug. Sometimes that is why we go through the scary stuff. It’s really ALL about the hug!
This blog isn’t political though I have deeply strong thoughts about my government, the direction I’d like to see the country move, and the lack of integrity everywhere. Instead of talking about Kavanuagh or Ford and others in today’s hearing, I want to discuss language. The use of language in medical scenarios, such as melanoma cancer as described my Mayo Clinic.
Health information is critical to making sense of a frightening diagnosis, mine was a second cancer diagnosis in 2017. The first time the biopsy came back positive for melanoma, my dermatologist left a terrifying message on my phone, the second time the same. I appreciated knowing up front that I have metastatic melanoma, and each time returned his call for more details.
It’s what I describe as a cold call, learning that something is seriously wrong but needing to call to find out the details. Somehow, it would be more fitting to do this in person, but keep in mind time is of the essence when fighting cancer. After each of these calls, life went in to hyper-mode to learn what was next. The power of words, right?
Words can be critical to how we feel, our perspective on healing, and where we find our hope and courage. I want to hear what words have brought challenge to your life, what words have brought joy? Something as simple as clean scans are ginormous in a cancer patient’s life.
Them’s Fightin’ Words
Medically speaking, I’ve had some curiously frustrating situations. For example, in talking to my first local oncologist when I felt my cancer was back, she told me not to overreact. My local dermatologist made an illustration of how my excision was done and described the healing process. Unfortunately, I believed what they said, there words the gospel of medical belief.
Except I pushed for a biopsy, except something felt wrong, except I needed to believe in myself because metastatic melanoma was in another area of my face. No blame as these medical professionals felt they were right, but jeez the time lost while I am feeling the he said she said of medical mistakes. Meanwhile, time had gone by….
My Hearing – No, I’m Not Up for SCOTUS!
Working with Dana Farber has been an incredible experience, the level of knowledge, the cancer research done there, and the integrity of the staff is amazing. Though my local radiation doctor didn’t feel I would have hearing loss, one of my Dana Farber oncologists, said it was very probable. Another he said, she said…I am going with what I know: my hearing is poor, I no longer have ear wax (just what you needed to know, right?), and my left ear just feels different.
Sorry to complain, it’s not my point here at all. This writing is really a reminder to the collective we. We know our bodies, our minds, our spirits. Believe in yourself and find your inspiration. Balance is critical to our healing from disease; accurate information is essential and professional staff builds confidence.
In August, I had a CT scan at Dana Farber that found a questionable area, and the minute I went in to see the best skin cancer oncologist ever (okay, I may be prejudiced!), he greeted my and immediately disclosed his concerns. He also let me know it was not melanoma, and that this was not his area of knowledge.
It turned out to be nothing of concern, but how reassuring to have my oncologist explain what they saw, what needed to happen, and admit that he was not the doctor for this concern. That’s integrity of words, using language to tell what is known, and what direction my medical challenges need to go.
There is no fake news and real news, no he said she said in the medical world. Find your best possible information and staff, and move toward your medical reality confident in the integrity of what is known at this point. I only wish that we could use the words integrity and government in the same phrase…that would be language I’d be hearing!
We’re learning, every day, each of us in our own unique way. Think on this for a moment. What was it today that was that aha moment. Each day we are given an opportunity to take more in, to consider, and grow. Give yourself that moment to consider how to move forward, to sail on.
Melanoma and the health information available is growing, too. Cancer patients may feel overwhelmed with information, options, and cancer research which seems to grow faster than the speed of light! Some of us are lucky enough to be alive thanks to clinical trials and cancer research. Consider what you need or want to know, and then get on with living. Processing helps us to move forward.
Courage ebbs and flows; many refer to it as the medical merry go-round. Recently, one of the many scans that I have every 3 months sent me into a minor tailspin. Cancer is such a head game! Totally expecting positive tests, my oncologist suggested further testing. No problem, I can do that, right? UGH. Everything turned out fine but below is example of that damn mind game that creeps in.
Initially, confidence ruled and I knew it was no worries. And then sinking feelings, inspiration drowning, hope weighted down. That positive attitude twisting, careening in the flotsam of medical melee. Then, time ticked for an eternity as I waited to have the scan, waited for the doctor to come back from vacation, waited to know, waited. I’ve learned to negate the monsters of waiting, to keep them at bay.
Author Robert A. Heinlein wrote in Stranger in a Strange Land, “Waiting is”. Perfect, really, and the dangling of this thought encompasses the abeyance of disease, of cancer, of the abhorrence of living in a suspended state. I refuse to live as though on the bridge of the ship as it begins to sink, watching, waiting as though a bystander in my own destiny.
Navigating Your Course
How do you deal with those times, the uncertainties, the waiting? I’d love to hear how you cope with waiting, fear, and the head games. The mind knows what has been presented, fear can take us down. I choose to live, live deeply, and to fill my sails!
Another lesson learned. Life with cancer is different and different forever, no doubt, but the quality of the voyage is ours to determine, to balance. Right your vessel, tighten your sheets, and carry on! #melanomatheskin #cancer #melanoma #wecan-cervive #sailawaywithme
is the appointments, no longer in the distance but hurdles to be jumped in the next few days. I honestly, don’t see a finish line in my melanoma path, primarily because beating cancer is now a way of life. This isn’t a knee scrape that we put a band aid on and all is good.
Bottom line, I’m alive and I’m in the care of world class doctors at Dana Farber, and I’m monitored on a regular basis. Do I want to be under such scrutiny? Hell, yes! While I’d love to have no medical anything in life, I have a ginormous medical life. This is what is keeping me alive and that is how I look at it. This IS life now.
Not The Fast Track
My journey involves traveling. Weighing whether my Stage III metastatic melanoma was worthy of out-of-state cancer treatment with the recurrence, it was obvious that was the track we were on. Road trips add another layer of angst but once you get the routine down its okay.
A folder includes changes in medicines, printed schedules, and other loose paperwork. The notebook of questions, previous notes, and dates, etc. is essential. Identification and the dreaded health insurance cards are put in my “Maggie Bag”… a gift from a friend that keeps the small essentials together. There’s also a cribbage board in there, pens, chapstick, pain relievers, and special beads from the grandkids.
All of this goes in the backpack, along with water bottles, snacks, and perhaps some knitting or reading. I can’t do books on Dana Farber days as my mind wanders but a good magazine is easier on the brain. Why the backpack? These days are beyond full so we bring what we need and usually don’t have to return to the parking garage until day’s end. Wear comfortable walking shoes as procedures are not next door! What works for you on big medical days? I’d love to hear your tips! Please comment.
Having a caregiver, if possible, is very important. Driving, listening to medical professionals, helping to navigate floors, offices, and labs, taking notes, asking questions, and just offering support in a very anxious situation is incredibly helpful.
Start Up: A Marathon with Hurdles
Dermatologists will examine every dot and spot. Included in the day is: blood work, MRI and CT scans, skin cancer oncologists, and the infusion team if all goes well. Beyond grueling as woven in to this time of poking and prodding, is the nugget all cancer patients keep buried in the back of their thoughts…”will the tests come back clean?”.
Health information is exchanged. I let my medical team know of my fatigue challenges, what aches, any new areas in question. In return, I will get preliminary results from all the testing, and perhaps a green light for infusion of Yervoy (imilimumab), one of the drugs in the clinical trial that I started last Fall.
Train For The Hurdles
Like each day, I take the medical days moment by moment. Each appointment is important, and brings me one step closer to the end-of-the-day infusion that may be enhancing my immune system. Train your brain to seek the positive when possible. How you prepare for the next appointment matters.
Lead into your hurdles with hope and courage; it makes for a strong landing. Life is different for each of us, and we all have our challenges, our hurdles. Take each one as they come, and work toward a solid landing. Like the track and field runner, practice finding balance and positive head space. Where does your inspiration come from? #rootingforyou #cancer #melanomatheskin #melanoma #yippyforipi #inforthewin #Tuesdaythoughts
Today the thoughts creep in, a bit more than the usual cancer stuff. It’s always there, the c-word stuff, but I believe I’m exceptional! Exceptional at keeping thoughts at bay, exceptional at ignoring thoughts, and exceptionally exceptional at creating an aura of life is good. Other cancer patients can relate to this!
Three months without my melanoma team, free to push myself through fatigue heavy days and achy joint night. Samplings of joy, love, and life finely sift through my new colander of life. Every moment is rich, alive, and mine for the living.
Whither Shall I Wander?
Prisoner in my own mind, my desire to stay in-the-now wanders down the path of next up. Next up means scans, tests, appointments with oncologists, dermatologists, and the infusion staff. These thoughts are like stalkers in my mind, no longer allowing me the freedom to be.
Plans for the trip to Dana Farber unfold, questions to be asked are written in THE notebook, the medical backpack is unpacked and repacked. Stalker thoughts are unavoidable and while this is not the travel adventure we anticipate, having the blue print in place becomes the norm.
Lost in Thought
Inching closer to the big medical day, it’s more of a challenge to ensure that my health information is current, that all pieces are in place. Racing toward a date that I’d rather avoid, troll-like nasties invade my head space. Ugly, worrisome thoughts greedily take up residence, regardless of how I attempt to evict them.
Feelings of balance and ideas of inspiration are mislaid; moments of hope are obscured as medical melee overrules. The unknown of the next medical segment may leave us feeling lost and filled with fear. Forsake those feelings as best you can as solace comes from love and understanding.
In The Know
The best cancer tip I can offer is that being organized helps. It may not sound like much but a medical backpack, a notebook, a caregiver…any or all provide cancer support. Know your schedule and print it. You will learn how to find all the offices, labs, and treatment areas; though it sounds odd, there is comfort in having a routine for your cancer trips.
Days and hours leading up to your next appointments may be fraught with worry. Organize ahead of your appointments, shoo away thoughts of the unknown to make room for thoughts of courage. #braverthanyoubelieve #melanomatheskin #melanoma #cancer
There’s a lot I’ve learned about cancer in my lifetime, and more than I want to know about the consequences of melanoma. It really wasn’t all that long ago that many of us didn’t know just how deadly skin cancer can be.
I grew up outdoors as I mentioned in an earlier blog post. We didn’t realize how damaging the sun could be, or at the most, thought we needed to use lotions and creams after sun damage to keep our tan skin beautiful. I’m going to generalize here and say most of us knew of skin cancer but thought it was no big deal. The worst that could happen would be we have a small area removed, right?
Wrong, wrong, wrong! How naive we all were and for all of those who still think they are “immune” to cancer and the power of the sun, I deeply hope that is true for you. I know I was absolutely fine with my tan, my rosy cheeks, my “healthy” look…until I found the first area on my face and after the biopsy, learned I was unhealthy, very unhealthy as I had my first cancer diagnosis of melanoma.
Making a List and Checking It Twice
I have a plethora of cancer tips to share with cancer patients and caregivers, along with everyone else. Today I want to share some basics about skin cancer. A family member asked me if basal cell carcinoma will turn into melanoma if left untreated? What a great question and the answer is no. There are different types of skin cancer and while all of them are frightening, they do not start as one type and morph into another.
Here is a very basic list of skin cancers:
Actinic keratoses-pre-cancerous growth
Basal cell carcinoma-most common skin cancer and should be removed to avoid disfigurement as it can grow into surrounding tissue
Squamous cell carcinoma-causes damage and grows deep
Any of the above skin cancer diagnoses should be taken seriously and mean there is abnormal cell growth. They do NOT turn into melanoma and each has their own description and photo at the American Academy of Dermatology Yes, you can have more than one kind of skin cancer and each has unique characteristics.
Malignant melanoma-the most aggressive and deadly skin cancer
Skin cancer may travel though it’s far less likely to happen with the non-melanoma cancers in the first bulleted group above. Early detection is beneficial, and with malignant melanoma early diagnosis and treatment is critical.
Get the Skin-ny
Have an area that you are wondering about? Or have you had sun damage in the past? Dermatologists are a great place to have your skin examined or biopsied if necessary. Even people who have had no skin issues now have an annual skin checkup. Why not? It’s simple and may just ease your mind.
Please don’t wait if something doesn’t seem right. My first area of melanoma didn’t look like the online photos; visit a real doctor to clarify any skin concerns. As I mentioned, early detection is very important, and be #sunsmart and take care of your skin now; it’s never too late! I’d love to hear from you on how you are dealing with your skin cancer concerns. #melanoma #melanomatheskin #skincancer