Connecting the dots: Being on the lookout for melanoma could save your life
I’m not blonde, nor a natural redhead. I don’t have freckles or blue eyes. I grew up in the desert sun of the Okanagan Valley and spent most of my winter vacations in Maui or Mexico. I also lived aboard a sailboat for 15 years, exposed to the elements.
With this in mind, I have been keeping a careful eye on the moles, skin tags and freckles that have sprung up over the years. Although I have worn SPF 45 sunscreen for years, I spent my adolescence slathered in Johnson’s baby oil to get that perfect tan, so I’ve been expecting one of these brown spots to turn hostile and am ever vigilant.
Last August, I saw what appeared to be a bug bite smaller than a Tic Tac on the back of my arm, which hadn’t been there before. I scratched it, but it wasn’t itchy. It didn’t go away, so after a few days I went to see the doctor, who sent me packing with a prescription for steroid cream and a request to return in a week if it wasn’t gone. A week later, I was back in the doctor’s office, where he removed the blemish and left me with three stitches. When I returned one week later to get the stitches removed, he sat me down, pulled his chair close to mine, looked me in the eye and said, “It’s melanoma.”
It was fortunate that this typically malignant tumor, a form of skin cancer, was caught early. I was sent to Prince George four days later to have a larger piece of skin removed by a plastic surgeon. After much freezing and four Ativan (what do you mean you’re not putting me under?) I had a four-inch-by-four-inch-by-one-inch piece of my arm flesh removed and 30 stitches running down the back of my arm.
I came home to recover with the plastic surgeon’s response to why they’d taken so much playing over and over in my head: “It’s the most deadly form of cancer, and it spreads fast.” I commenced lymphatic massage therapy, which my doctor recommended, to help reduce swelling and scarring.
Shortly afterward, my doctor brought me in to map every spot on my body. I also had a chest X-ray and mammogram. Thankfully, the results from my excision (the giant hole in my arm) came back negative, indicating all the cancerous cells had been removed, as in time did the X-ray and mammogram.
My intent here is to raise awareness. I have been waiting all my life for one of my moles to betray me, go rogue, crack and turn black in what would be skin cancer of some form. The fact that it came so innocently, as a tiny red dot on a part of my body that you need a mirror to see, was shocking to me.
I took precautions starting in my 20s to minimize my exposure to the sun, dressing in long-sleeve shirts and hats with wide brims. And yet it got me. When discussing this with my doctor, who is from South Africa, he told me that in his homeland he saw very few cases of melanoma, yet here, in northern BC, he sees three to five cases a year. Exposure is one thing, he says, but there are other environmental factors that he thinks contribute as well. Time and science will tell.
Who knows? Google is full of information, but none of the pictures I saw looked like my red spot.
The take-home message here is, don’t just look at your moles and don’t just look at what you can immediately see. Get your partner, friend, kid, whomever to check your head, back of your ears, bottom of your feet, between your toes and all points north and west. Inspect all different types of blemishes—it’s not always what you think. And ask your first-degree relatives about the family history; skin cancer can be hereditary.
If melanoma isn’t caught early it can spread to your brain, liver, lungs and once there, well—let’s stick with the mitigation strategy for now. If even one person reads this and does a spot check I’ll feel like I’ve done a little something to raise awareness. Here’s wishing you a happy and fun exploration of your spots. Connecting the dots could save your life!