My name is Mike and I am 26 years old. I live a pretty great life I think; I got a great job after college and work hard and play hard, too. Not far from my wonderful family in Anne Arundel County, I live in Baltimore with an amazing girl whom I met two years ago. Ever since, she has been the best part of my life. I have a story to share, and I hope it helps someone to understand, helps to deal, and maybe manage just a little better. For everyone else out there fighting, stay strong. Live your life and surround yourself with loved ones. They will support you to the end.
It was Monday morning and I was getting ready for work when I got a phone call from my dermatologist. I wasn't expecting more than, "Hey, Mike, everything's fine, see you next time." I answered the phone, and her tone gave it away. For all I knew, I had a hemangioma removed from my neck, like she and everyone in the office thought. Instead, she had removed a large melanoma tumor. I had no idea what this meant at the time; I stood there dumbfounded before I realized that melanoma meant cancer.
Here I was just ironing my shirt and all of a sudden — BOOM — cancer. My family had no history of skin cancer. I wasn't a beach bum, never really had a great tan. I played baseball my whole life but stayed protected. I had a few sunburns in my day, but never around the area on my neck that the melanoma was discovered. So, what caused this? I didn’t know what to do. I took the day off to try to relax and not bother my brain with the stress of work as well. I didn’t know whom to tell. I thought about keeping it secret from everyone as long as I could. Why add any more stress to anyone else’s life? But I decided that the people closest to me needed to know, and I would need their support.
Hours later I was setting up an appointment to meet who would be my surgical oncologist. Luckily for me, he had an appointment the next day. There wasn't a lot of downtime to research, to worry. I met the doctor the following morning and he explained what was going on. My pathology wasn't the best: 4.5 mm with ulceration. From what I did have time to read up on, it was less than favorable. But my doctor was confident we could take care of it. I was scheduled to have a wide local excision and a sentinel lymph node biopsy. The secretary called me later that day with my date of surgery, about two weeks out. All I could do was wait. Wait and think, and think and worry. And worry about my girlfriend. And worry about my parents. I just didn't want anyone to worry about me.
It was the longest two weeks of my life. I kept it pretty quiet at work. I constantly thought about it, worried about it, and wanted it to be over with. I told my close friends; I didn’t want them to think I was in a funk for no reason. Two weeks of meetings, conference calls, and the daily grind. I kept occupied, but it was a distraction.
Finally, the day for surgery came. I was up early and off to the hospital. I met my family there, but soon I was signing in, changing, and getting set up. First, I was off to nuclear medicine to receive the tracker injections that would identify the closest lymph nodes for biopsy. It was a little painful, but knowing what it would do it was well worth the discomfort.
What felt like minutes later, I was being whisked away to the operating room, positioned for surgery, and off to La-La Land. A few hours later, I awoke from surgery just happy to have it over with. Once I had my wits about me, I got to see my family again. I heard that everything went well. I saw my face and it was swollen, but what can you expect after getting your neck sliced open and having cancer removed? The doctor stopped by to let me know it went really well, and that he’d see me in a week for the follow up and results.
I got the follow-up scheduled a week later. And I thought the two weeks before surgery was long?! I went home to rest and relax. The hard part, for now, was over. I healed up well, with most swelling gone in a few days. Luckily, I had a well-placed four-day vacation following my surgery. It was fun distraction with the girl I love, away from my stress. I know everyone says it, almost cliché-like, but you really don’t appreciate the simple things until something big comes your way. I spent my vacation time enjoying life and appreciating my friends and family.
When vacation time ended and it was back to work, I was nervous. I had a giant scar on my neck, complete with stitches and staples. I was putting myself in an environment where I was surrounded by people who barely knew me to those whom I knew since day one. In the end, it was such a minor concern, but I was worried.
I returned to a warm welcome, but I noticed just how uncomfortable working at a desk all day can be. But I was relieved to know I could get back a part of my normal life. It didn’t hurt that my follow-up was only two days later, but that Friday I went back to my doctor to have my scar examined and to get the ever-so-important pathology results.
My dad was able to join me for the appointment, and I was just glad to see him again. My scar was healing just fine so the stitches came out, and all that was left was for the doctor to come in and go over pathology results. The next five minutes went down in history as the greatest five minutes of my life as the doctor explained that I had three lymph nodes removed and all three were negative for cancer. I was so relieved. It was like I had been holding up a mac truck on my shoulders for a month and I finally got to put it down. I was advised that with my advanced stage I would have to be monitored closely, come back for PET scans, and would be referred to another oncologist to consider adjuvant treatment. But for now, I was in the clear and it felt great.
This will not be the last time I have to deal with melanoma, and I know that. But I sure hope it is the last time I have to fight it. For everyone else out there fighting, stay strong. Live your life and surround yourself with loved ones. They will support you to the end. Cancer doesn’t own you, but you can’t ignore it. And during your struggles, remember there are so many of us out there just like you, so many who are willing to lend a kind word. And there are even more of us who will work to raise awareness and gain support to make sure everyone comes out on top. And count me in that group, now more than ever.