Melanoma, Basal, AKs: My Battle
The scar on my left arm turns 11 in another month. It’s about three inches long, has a certain Frankenstein’s-monster quality to it, has faded a good bit since the winter of 2007, and is an ever-present reminder of how fortunate I am to have my health. That long thin line that used to have an awkward dog-eared lump at one end also serves as a reminder of a complete turnaround in my thinking regarding the sun. Once upon a time, my left arm had been host to a small horseshoe-shaped mole that could have been covered by an eraser. It was one spot among hundreds of freckles, dozens of imperfections, and a handful of moles. It wasn’t on my radar. It was an afterthought. It was, in fact, melanoma.
Scar on arm
A biopsy, an excision, and a plan of action later, I had given up tanning and believed my troubles were over. When the margins were found to be clear following my excision, I believed my journey had been a terrifying but short one. It didn’t take long to figure out that the damage I had done to my skin by not protecting it from the sun had sealed my fate. Stopping tanning cold turkey and stepping up my sunscreen game would protect me from causing further damage to my skin. I had created a monster, though, and it was seething just below the surface, as I would soon find out.
Melanoma never darkened my door again, but skin cancer has continued to dominate my life since that initial diagnosis. Shortly after my six-month checkups began in earnest, I was told I had precancerous spots on my chest--lots of them. At each successive checkup, my dermatologist used cryosurgery to remove them--again, again, and again. The severe sun damage I had inflicted upon myself via my love of the sun and the comfort and ease of tanning bed use had left me with actinic keratoses (AKs) on my face, chest, and much of my upper body. These scaly and crusty spots were a direct result of ultraviolet radiation. What I saw as “bad skin” was actually sun damage--severe sun damage, and it was going to rear its ugly head over and over.
At some point in the first couple years following my melanoma surgery, a new threat appeared. One of those dry patches of skin--eraser-sized again--drew my dermatologist’s attention. It looked like a flake, seriously. The difference being, this little flake reappeared no matter how many times I scratched it off my neck. A single dry spot that would not respond to moisturizer and continued to appear--the description I gave struck a chord with my doctor. Biopsy. Phone call. Surgery. That was the order. It was small. It was dry. It was hardly noticeable. It was basal cell carcinoma. It was my second experience with skin cancer. Again, it was not my last.
I have had Mohs surgery three times for basal cell carcinomas since 2007. Four scars total--all different ages. I lost count many years ago of the number of white scars on my skin marking the cryosurgery sites. If I say “dozens” that pretty much covers it, and the tally continues. They sit on my chest and face like neon signs screaming, “Let this, this, this, and this be a lesson to you!” They are among some of the best free advertising against tanning salons and for sunscreen you will ever see. I would be lying if I said my scars didn’t bother me. I have moments of frustration when I find myself trying to wipe the white spot off my lip thinking I’ve missed a bit of donut glaze. Catching a glimpse of my neck and chest in a photo and noting the scar nestled between my collar bones and the white flecks adorning the skin below it, I cringe. I can’t lie.
I am going to fight these little devils for, well, I really can’t say. That, in and of itself, is the most frustrating aspect of this beast. The damage is always with me--lurking. Melanoma wasn’t my end. My melanoma diagnosis was just the beginning. Granted, it was the beginning of a strange and, at times, frightening road. It was, however, the diagnosis that saved and then changed my life.
How often do you speak to your family members about skin cancer?