Irene’s personal story
In January 2010, I watched the segment from the "Doctor Oz" show called "Prevent Skin Cancer" with dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi. I saw two malignant mole photos that looked like one of my moles. That segment convinced me to call and make an appointment with my dermatologist for a skin check. I am very lucky that my melanoma was detected early. I was diagnosed with two malignant melanomas in situ in February 2010. I had three surgeries for the removal of two sites on my abdomen. One was a new mole that recently appeared and the other an old mole that had changed.
After my dermatologist did the shave biopsy on the tiny new mole, she insisted that I come back as soon as possible to have the surgical biopsy done on the large mole because it was too large for a shave biopsy. Four days later, I came back to have the other biopsy done. As I was lying in the reclining exam chair for the local anesthesia to take effect, the doctor had gotten a call from the pathologist regarding one of the biopsies she sent in the previous week. He called about my shave biopsy of the new tiny black mole. My doctor told me that the pathologist had called about my biopsy result telling her that it was melanoma and that she needed to remove more tissue to get a clear margin as soon as possible. My doctor was positive that the larger mole she was removing that day, which was larger than a pencil eraser, was melanoma.
I was numb not only on my abdomen, but my mind was numb after hearing that confirmed diagnosis. I was told what I needed to do next and made all my future appointments. I made it through it all without crying at least until I got into my car. I drove home after all that and just cried the entire way home. I kept thinking about my grandfather who died of stage IV malignant melanoma in 1977 because it was not diagnosed and treated early enough. He suffered through skin grafts, chemo, and radiation therapy. It was so difficult watching someone you love die of stage IV malignant melanoma.
I was afraid that my larger mole might be at a more advanced stage. I had my next surgery to get a clear margin the following week for the small mole. I had another appointment scheduled to have the second surgery on the large mole after the pathologist results showed that there was still melanoma cells left at the site of the mole excision. The next surgery was even deeper and I never thought that it would be as painful as it was. There was a lot of bleeding which had to be cauterized. It was so hard to be at home alone and to keep from thinking about it all. My family doctor prescribed a stronger antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications so I could sleep, function, and go to work. I was devastated, overwhelmed, and severely depressed over all of it and other happenings in my life, so I went into therapy to deal with everything that I was facing alone. I never would have made it emotionally or physically otherwise.
After I was diagnosed, I searched on the internet for any information that I could find to read on melanoma. It was my way of coping with the fear, depression, and the loneliness of having been diagnosed and treated for melanoma.
In mid-March 2010, I decided to spread the word to others about preventing melanoma and other skin cancers. I found two booklets on melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers on the National Cancer Institute website. I gave them away to people and left them at doctors’ offices, hair salons, and wherever else people might pick it up, read it, or take it home to read. Since then, I have given out 460 booklets along with 50 melanoma awareness wristbands.
Malignant melanoma can happen to anyone. Melanoma is not just skin cancer. It is one of the deadliest of all cancers once it has metastasized. If I could reach even one person, maybe it could save his or her life, or a family member's life. Maybe I could make a difference even with strangers. I did this anonymously hoping the information I gave out would then be passed along to even more people. So many people are dying when their deaths might have been prevented.
In early 2012, I did have one mole that needed to be biopsied. I was so happy that the mole was benign. What a beautiful word, benign! I realize that I may need future biopsies for the removal of any suspicious or changed moles for the rest of my life, along with constant protection of my skin from the UVB and UVA radiation from the sun. It is a major lifestyle change. I know that no doctor can guarantee that I won't ever have a recurrence, especially because I had two melanomas removed in early 2010. However, I find it difficult at times to get over the fear in the back of my mind that it will come back or one abnormal mole could be missed and then it could develop into a more advanced stage of melanoma before it is found.
I do have to mention that I never used tanning booths or beds. I had only tanned in my younger years, outdoors in the summer. Back then we did not have sunscreen. We only had suntan lotion or oil for tanning. I was outdoors working and exercising for most of my summers. Our pool or the beach were the best places to be in the summer.
I now use sun-protective clothing, hats, SPF 30 sunscreen, along with SPF in my body and face moisturizing lotions. I also try to stay in the shade or indoors when the sun is the strongest. I started a Facebook page about melanoma and skin cancer awareness in an effort to bring more information about the prevention, early detection, and treatment of melanoma, along with the other two skin cancers, to as many people as I can on Facebook. It means a great deal to me to give someone a chance as I had or better yet to prevent any of the skin cancers from happening in the first place. It has become one of my missions in life.
I am a melanoma survivor and I hope to stay a survivor. I wear my Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF) melanoma awareness wristbands (Fight the Beast Melanoma and Beat the Beast Melanoma) every day to spread the word. It also reminds me to take greater precaution when I am in the sun.