Two weeks ago, the monster arrived in our home. It occupied every room and underscored every thought, overshadowing the future and stealing the present. It sat like a dark, sticky raven on the roof of our home, warning hope and happiness to stay away as this house had been claimed by worry and fear.
It started as a nondescript spot on my husband’s back. Mr. Smokin’ Hot is a frequent flyer at the dermatologist’s office: Every six months he gets a full body scan and the work begins anew, cutting out new basal and squamous cell skin cancers and burning off pre-cancerous sites, typically 60-70 per visit. A pale guy who served 31 years in the United States Navy, he devoted his life and sacrificed his skin in service to our country.
The doctor visits, although painful, were routine: scan, slice, burn. Because the basal and squamous cell cancers are so common, the word cancer no longer sent me into shock. But when the dermatologist called for an immediate 8 a.m. visit to discuss a biopsy, I knew it was trouble. Experience has taught me that bad news is best served for breakfast.
The monster is melanoma. The skin cancer that kills.
Melanoma: The diagnosis definitely lives up to the hype. Once you hear the word, your eyes glass over and the room starts spinning a little. I was rendered atypically speechless and had trouble hearing the doctor’s explanations or focusing on his illustrations, while my husband sat strong and silent.
The doctor asked if we knew anything about melanoma. I shook my head no. I lied. Two of my friends had it. They died.
Arriving home, I went into control mode, discarding every bit of food that was processed, contained sugar, additives or unhealthy fats; and all beef, pork and non-organically grown chicken. I tossed the store-bought bread and bought a grinder for organic grain. All I could think of was that perhaps I had helped feed the cancer in some way, and if I couldn’t be part of the solution, I sure wasn’t going to be part of the problem.
Mostly we just waited. Waited for the next test, waited for the next result, waited for the right words that mostly never came.
My usual obnoxiously sunny outlook became mostly mute silence, and when that became obvious, I prattled on about nothing at all. We discussed all the what-ifs and made sure our estate papers were in order to ease both our minds. To protect ourselves and each other, we stayed in a state of self-imposed emotional lockdown, telling family as little as possible and telling friends nothing at all.
Suddenly, our calendar revolved around doctor appointments, radioactive dye, surgery, scans, lymph nodes and decisions about chemotherapy. We’ve known each other only five years and been married for two. Our happiness is incandescent.
“Is this all we’ll get?” I wondered. If so, it’s a rotten deal and I’d like to speak to someone in charge.
Unlike other skin cancers which grow horizontally or outward, melanoma burrows down, seeking the bloodstream’s superhighway to spread to lymph nodes and eventually other organs. The melanocytes, those little cells that create pigment in our skin, are disrupted at some point by overexposure to the sun. This can be repeated exposure over time, tanning bed use or a single sunburn. Scientists theorize that the DNA of the cell is thus disrupted, resulting in an operational chaos.
Somehow, new cells then grow out of control. And just like humans and lab rats when overcrowded, they turn on each other, forming a mole which leaves its calling card on the skin’s surface.
Melanoma can occur anywhere, but especially the back, face, arms and legs — places which are most likely to be exposed to the sun. The mole may be asymmetrical, oddly colored or changing in size. Or, like my husband’s, it may look like nothing at all. His back had not been exposed to the sun for decades; melanoma is a patient killer.
Caught very early, the prognosis and survival rate are excellent. But melanoma’s job is a search-and-destroy mission; once it reaches other organs, it’s deadly, and it’s likely that the only symptom you have is the mole that you’re ignoring.
If melanoma is found and removed completely at the initial site, the survival rate is 92 percent. Once it hits a lymph node, which happens fairly early in the game, it’s only 62 percent. And if the monster finds an organ, the survival rate is a dim 18 percent.
When the pathology results arrived, the oncologist’s office called to summon us immediately, which to me signaled the worst of news. Christmas came early; the scans were clear, the lymph nodes clean and the dragon had been slain. In a single moment, life was back to what passes for normal around here.
Next month starts a new year, and I promise to start being funny again. In the meantime, please have a safe and happy holiday season. Celebrate life, however you have it; family and community, wherever you find them; and happiness, however it presents itself.
And please schedule a skin check with your doctor.
— By Shari Savage, Tribune community columnist