Jennifer’s personal story
My Melanoma Story: Three Diagnosis in One Year
Tanning was an addiction to me. I tanned in the summer and since I lived in upstate New York, I wanted to keep a little “glow” in the winter. I got that glow from tanning beds. It was basically a year-long endeavor. It became normal to me.
I was diagnosed with melanoma when I was 40. I started tanning when I was 17. In my late 20s and 30s, I did quit using tanning beds and slowed down a lot outside in the summer, but I still always had a tan. I also have other risk factors for melanoma, too, like multiple moles and multiple atypical moles, but according to all of my doctors, my melanoma showed its face due to my long-term UV exposure.
March 2012: Round One
I made an appointment with a plastic surgeon in March 2012 for what my primary physician and I thought was a keloid scar from a minor burn. I went in thinking, okay I am going to have a pay a fortune to have this scar removed, but I just couldn’t stand to look at it anymore because of its location on my right upper arm. It was turning a different color since my doctor had injected it with a steroid to try to shrink it.
As soon as the plastic surgeon saw it, he knew right away it was not a scar. He examined my lymph nodes and removed the scar with margins to be biopsied. I thought to myself, what the hell he is checking my lymph nodes for?
It took about four days for him to call me, but I was already expecting bad news. “Jennifer, it was a melanoma. We need to schedule surgery right away, you need to see another surgeon to perform sentinel lymph node biopsy, and you need to be scheduled before your surgery with an oncologist.” I didn’t break down sobbing. I just felt like I was living outside of my body and was going through the motions.
Everything was done the same week of my diagnosis. Full-body CAT scans, sentinel lymph node biopsy, and wide excision with skin grafting from my abdomen since the melanoma was so large. The recovery was very painful but I made it through it and all CAT scans and lymph nodes were negative for melanoma. Thank God!
I was on the road to recovery and scheduled for routine skin checks every three months. After a couple of months, I felt pretty much back to normal, but was obviously obsessing over any little change in a mole or new skin growth. I thought I made it through the rough part, now I wanted to get moving on.
October 2012: Round Two
Six months later, I found a new lesion on my left arm, exactly in the same location as the one on my right arm. It was not from a preexisting mole and it was not brown or black. It looked like a red pimple and was growing and appeared raised. I scheduled a stat appointment with my dermatologist and she thought it was just a picker’s nodule. (To this day I have no idea what that is.) She wanted to prescribe a cream for it. She said it did not need to be removed.
Well, needless to say, my nasty side had to come out and I demanded that she remove the lesion or I would find another physician who would. She insisted it was unnecessary and reluctantly removed it.
Five days later, the call came. She said, “I am shocked Jennifer. It was a melanoma, very aggressive with a high mitotic rate.” She is no longer my dermatologist! I immediately called my plastic surgeon. He scheduled my “wide local excision” immediately, along with sentinel lymph node biopsy by another surgeon, and another round of CAT scans. Here we go again!
The surgery went well. No skin graft was needed and lymph nodes and CAT scans were clear of melanoma. I dodged another bullet! I was referred to a dermatologist in NYC who is affiliated with Sloan-Kettering and started back up with three-month checkups.
March 2013: Round Three
One year after my first diagnosis and six months after my second, my hair stylist saw a mole on my scalp that had not been there previously. She told me to let my oncologist and dermatologist know just so they could keep an eye on it. Since my dermatologist is in NYC, I had my oncologist take a look at it and he wanted it removed to be on the safe side because it was almost black. My plastic surgeon removed it in his office and the call came a few days later that it was again, another melanoma.
This time, I freaked out! I thought what the hell is going on with me? I am doing everything I am supposed to be doing. I started taking supplements, was totally obsessive about wearing sunscreen and hats, and this has to happen again!
Fortunately, it was a very superficial melanoma and my plastic surgeon was able to do the wide local excision without any grafting. The mole was located underneath a bunch of long dark-brown hair and I cannot even find where the scar is. Another blessing!
Today: My New Normal
Since my diagnosis, I have had numerous biopsies and most of my moles have been dysplastic. And while that means abnormal for most, for me, it’s my normal.
Life is different now. I advocate as much as I possibly can about the dangers of tanning beds and sun exposure. I tell my story to people in my community. Some of them listen, and others pretend to listen but still want that tan. I would like to think that if I were in their shoes I would listen to them and stop tanning, but I know how tanning addiction works and I am not sure what I would do.
I do know that when people see my scars, which most of time I have covered up seeing they are on my upper arms, they feel bad for me. That is not what I want. I do not want sympathy from anyone because in reality I did this to myself. I wanted to tan and I knew it was not good for me but I did it anyway. I had the mentality of, “it will not happen to me” which is what I am sure most people still feel when I tell my story.
Has life changed for the worst since melanoma? Not a chance. While I wish I did not have melanoma, I am proud of the person I have become because of melanoma. I cherish every single day I spend with my husband and my family. I appreciate the little things in life that I always took for granted before. Everything I used to worry about before melanoma does not mean a thing to me now.
I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be strong enough to deal with my diagnosis, but I proved myself wrong. My strength amazes me sometimes and I hope that my story will make a difference in someone’s life, even if it is just for one person.
Life has changed, but life is good!