Surviving Melanoma- The New Face of Skin Cancer
When we learned how fast the rates of melanoma were increasing in teenagers and people aged 25-35, we knew we had to do our best to get the word out especially as May is Melanoma Awareness Month. Why is skin cancer the number 1 cancer killer for young women ages 25-35? What demographic shift has happened to make this a huge concern for Millennials?
It’s obviously a confluence of lifestyle factors that are making this a serious trend. My theory (and it’s only a theory) is that the sunscreens from the 90’s that we grew up with might have role to play. I remember how great sunscreen was as a kid- you could do a quick coat and then with the odd re-apply be good to stay out all day long and not burn. We know those sunscreens had real stability issues and were UVB biased- it was just the state of the science back then. It would stand to reason that we are now paying for this childhood exposure some twenty years later. There are better sunscreens available now so hopefully we will not see this trend continue for our children but of course that depends on choosing a good sunscreen, enacting good compliance and observing other sun safety measures.
Anyways, enough from me. When I heard Julie’s story, I knew we had to share. It absolutely obliterates the myth that melanoma equates to removing a bad mole in your doctor’s office. It’s a life changer and it can be heart wrenching. Here’s her story in her own words.
Julie, 35 year old Teacher
What were you diagnosed with and when?
I was diagnosed with Stage 1 Melanoma Skin Cancer of the left Ear Helix, in March 2014. I first had noticed a bump on my ear on January 1st celebrating New Year’s Eve in Huatulco Mexico with family while putting on sunscreen. This would be the start of a world-wind of a year physically and emotionally.
After being diagnosed, and reeling from the devastating news, they informed me that not only did they have to remove a significant part of my ear, but that it was medically suggested to remove my sentinel lymph node in my neck since there was a small possibility that the cancer might of spread due to the melanoma’s initial size of 1mm as well as they found that some of the cells shown that they had metastasized. This was to be very invasive with possible worst case scenario side effects such as nerve damage to facial, tongue, shoulder muscles or diaphragm.
Two days before my operation, my surgeon informed me that they would scale back the decision to remove my sentinel lymph node since the chances of it spreading were so minimal as compared to the invasiveness and the fact that if it had spread that the removal didn’t change the prognosis.
It’s a common perception that having skin cancer treated is normally the equivalent to having a mole removed at your doctor’s office, can you share how your treatment proceeded?
This was, as for many other patient’s going through this type of diagnosis, certainly not a routine or non invasive procedure. Due to the location of the melanoma, in my case to be on the helix part of my ear, I had to undergo a 1 hour surgery under anaesthesia to remove a pie shape piece of my ear, inserting over 50 stitches to be able to resew both sides back together. Two weeks later they removed the bandage I had to wear the entire time, as well as most of the stitches, to which I was finally able to go back to work. I could not sleep on the left side for 3 months after the operation since it was still very sensitive to touch and pressure. This proved to be very difficult due to the fact that I was a toss and turn type of sleeper, therefore, did not sleep to my full potential for those 3 months.
What is your current status with your treatment?
From the day of my operation on April 16,2014, I have been Melanoma free. I have routine check-ups every 3 months to monitor the healing process of the ear as well as to monitor any symptoms of possible spreading to my sentinel lymph nodes, of which due to the 1mm size of the Melanoma Cancer there was a 2% chance that it had spread. I will be officially in remission after 5 years of being monitored.
What was your initial reaction when you were first diagnosed?
I was in a state of shock. Nothing can really prepare you for that type of news. The feeling of regret, helplessness and sadness all rolled into one, which was so foreign to me. I was and slowly getting back to being the person , dare I say, that always has a tremendous sense of confidence and instinctive ” joie de vivre”.
Has this changed how you feel about your health in general? What’s it’s impact been on you: physically and emotionally?
I live my life with an even deeper appreciation of my health in general .Since this has happened I unfortunately have been overly in tuned with any changes with my body, and this sometimes not for the best. Every headache, every ear ache, or any ailment my thoughts automatically are that the cancer had or is spreading , to my brain, to my lymph nodes, which is probably a very unlikely occurrence, but nonetheless a worry I have ever since the diagnosis.
Physically, I now have a significantly smaller ear, which to the naked eye or to someone that doesn’t know me wouldn’t of noticed, but I certainly do. However, this was a physical change that has no subsequent consequences to my daily functions. It is primarily an aesthetic change, and in my case, not directly on my face, and can be hidden by my hair when I wear it down. I am a physical education teacher, as well as an active person, therefore, I do wear my hair up often which does expose my ears, and I am at the point that it does not bother me anymore.
It has been an adjustment in some areas : ie. talking on the phone with that ear, sleeping on that ear, sunglasses or glasses affecting the ear, but they seem to be subsiding with time and who knows, will probably be a non issue in the near future, and if not, like I had explained such a small sacrifice compared to so many.
I understand that self-esteem is directly linked to our physical appearance, but thankfully my confidence in myself does not center on that aspect. I focus on the fact that many more people have suffered greater loss or more severe physical ailments, due to cancers, diseases or even accidents. I am just so grateful.
Has this changed how you feel towards sun exposure and the outdoors?
Since the day I noticed the abnormal mole , and to this day, I am no longer a fan of the sun. Knowing more in depth what I know now, and realizing that my cancer was caused by a combination of pre-disposed genes, but more importantly my negligence to the strength and danger of the sun, I definitely try my best to avoid being in the sun, directly and to that matter without the best skincare products offered to protect it.
What has been the hardest part from your diagnosis through to your treatment?
The hardest part is the unknown. The fact that there is, and will be for 5 years, still a small chance that it had spread to my lymph nodes and that only time will tell, has been very difficult and caused anxiety, which is very foreign to me. However, I focus on the positives and the fact that the overwhelming chances are that it will not re-occur, and that I have an important role by being diligent with protecting my skin.
How worried are you about re-occurrence?
I would lie if I said I had no worries of re-occurrence. At the beginning, it was a daily thought. Once first diagnosed, it was many of those thoughts throughout a day. However, slowly but surely, it is fewer than once a day. There are events, movies, words, and even physical pain or ailments that can trigger a mini emotional roller-coster, but I have always found a way to turn into a positive and appreciate even more the life I lead.
How has your perspective changed in relation to the sun? Has it changed your behaviour?
Yes, it has drastically changed. I used to be of the thought that since I didn’t burn from sun exposure, I didn’t need to wear sunscreen. And how regretful I am now for this misconception and ignorance on my part. I now apply sunscreen daily on my face , as well as try my best to wear a hat to protect my face from any unwanted direct sun rays. If I am exposing the rest of my skin, I ensure that I reapply often and stay out of the direct sun as much as possible.