Every year, the month of May is "Melanoma Awareness Month". Information about melanoma becomes widely dispersed over social media regarding melanoma in the hopes of bringing awareness to the public on the subject. Information ranges from tips on sun safety and prevention, tips to identify melanoma, facts and debunked myths about melanoma, new research data on promising treatments on the horizon, and memorials to people who have passed away from the disease through memorial pictures and posts.
I have to stop and remind myself during this month that the majority of the population generally has no idea what melanoma is capable of. Most people think of skin cancer as going into the dermatologist as part of your routine lunch break, having a blip removed from your skin, slapping a band aid on it, grabbing a Subway sandwich for lunch and back in the office at 1pm.
Unfortunately, I have seen firsthand how incredibly far from "routine" melanoma is. The all encompassing, terrible, highly lethal cancer that it is. The skin is the largest organ in the body, giving melanoma the ammunition to spread quickly to any organ it chooses. I have become accustomed to the series of looks I receive when I explain how and why my mom passed away at only age 60. I get the initial look of sadness, when they hear it's cancer; the look of confusion when they hear it was from melanoma, and that you can "actually die from that?"; then, the ultimate look of "you've completely lost me" when i explain that melanoma can spread to the brain, lungs, and liver.
I am fully aware of the dangers and complications of melanoma as I have seen them up close and personal. My mom was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma in 2008, with the doctors never citing that they found the primary "spot" that most individuals with melanoma can pinpoint. The diagnosis was absolutely shocking. No one expects to go in for a doctor's appointment with pain that is symptomatic of arthritis- only to lead to an MRI showing a tumor in the thigh bone that is metastatic melanoma. My mom had not been a sun worshipper; it unfortunately could have been perfect storm of skin type, sun exposure over the years, genetic predisposition. Nothing can be determined for certain.
The next six years were a very long road for my unbelievably strong mom of doctor visits, surgeries, hospital stays, treatments, emergency room visits, physical therapy rehab. Throughout the six years, the cancer had spread at different points to the bones, lungs, and eventually, the brain. I admit, before this, was part of the population that would never have imagined that skin cancer could cause these sort of complications. This was the type of stuff that "serious" cancer caused.
In August of 2013, begrudgingly at the prompting of one of my close friends, I went to the dermatologist to get a very, very funky looking spot on my upper chest near my collarbone looked at. Sure enough, boom, guess what-a biopsy determined it was melanoma. I think we live in a universe of "not going to happen to me". Sickness happens to OTHER PEOPLE. People "over there". Not my family, not my friends, definitely not me. I think we live in a universe of "not going to happen to me". Sickness happens to OTHER PEOPLE. People "over there". Not my family, not my friends, definitely not me. But, it can and it does.
Luckily, beyond any sort of good fortune that I can ever understand, it was Stage 1. Early detection of melanoma is crucial. Many people who find melanoma at Stage 1 are cured by surgery alone and they can hopefully forget about it for the rest of their lives. The later melanoma is detected presents a steep decline in prognosis, although increasing amounts of new treatments are changing this statistic. However, I have no choice but to now be highly vigilant with my skin and my health in general.
There is no chance I will "forget about this" for the rest of my life. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Although the odds are statistically in my favor for a better outlook, a nagging reminder of the brutal potential of melanoma makes me fearful. Some fears rational, some less so. What if I am one of those people that surgery didn't fully cure and they didn't remove everything? Oh my God, was that spot on my arm there yesterday? It's bigger now, I know it is. It grew overnight. Why am I coughing? Why do I have a headache? My mind can't help but jump to the worst case scenario.
I struggle with this anxiety every day. It's difficult not to. However, I also have developed a different outlook on life. To stop worrying about petty things and start living. The last few years have truly proven that we truly don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. Things, sometimes, will not be fair. I'll never understand why this happened to my mom. My awareness that melanoma can come back and kick me in the pants any day reminds me to not waste time while healthy being angry or remorseful. I don't take a bad day so seriously. "You're here, you're healthy, you're okay" is a phrase I often repeat to myself when frustrated or depressed. I have developed more empathy toward others. I am more aware in many other aspects of my day to day life. In short, I've learned to deal.
Flash back to 2008, and I am sure I would have glossed over May without any care about Melanoma Awareness Month. Now, the reality is that every month is Melanoma Awareness Month for me. I hope that whatever the cause of the month may be- cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, the list goes on- that we take the time to listen to others about why it is important to them. Learn from their experiences. Learn about people's stories. Learn how you can help. Develop empathy for others. You never know what the future may hold for you and those you love.
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