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Jennifer’s personal story

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My name is Jennifer Kowatch. I am 28 years old. I was diagnosed with (stage IIB) melanoma on September 1, 2009, when I was 24 years old.

I had been noticing this lump at the top of my back, near my neck, for a while. It didn't really look different, just like a giant pimple. Then it started bleeding. I thought that maybe I just scratched it. The bleeding stopped and I continued to ignore it. Then a couple of months later, it started bleeding again and didn't stop. My mom had been nagging me for months to get it checked out, and honestly, it was starting to worry me a bit as well. I finally broke down and called a dermatologist.

About a month later, I finally got in to see the doctor. He said that it didn't look serious, but did a biopsy just in case. He thought it was fine, so I didn't worry. Turns out, I should have been worried.

September 1, 2009, started out as a normal day at work. I work at McDonald's and was busy taking orders. Then the phone rang, which is not unusual. The phone is constantly ringing. But it's never for me.

One of the managers came back and asked if I was expecting a call from my doctor. I thought, that was quick, they already got the results from the biopsy. Then I heard, "The results are in. You have melanoma." It felt like the world stopped moving.

The doctor said that his office was going to make arrangements for me to see another doctor, and he asked me if I had any questions. Did I have any questions? No. Yes. I don't know. I know what melanoma is. I've seen all the TV shows. I know what can happen to someone when they get a melanoma diagnosis. The appointment with the oncologist was two days later.

In the meantime, I was left wondering: how does a girl who uses sunscreen, doesn't sunbathe, and doesn’t bake in tanning beds end up with skin cancer?

My surgery was scheduled for September 15, 2009.

The day of my surgery I had to be at hospital admissions by 7:30 a.m. After waiting for them to call me back, and get my $150 check before they would even admit me, the receptionist told me to go to nuclear medicine up on the second floor. Once I got there, I was told that I wasn't supposed to be there, and to go back down to the first floor, to the short stay ward.

After taking another elevator ride I got down to short stay ward where the nurse gave me a bed and told me to change into one of the hospital gowns. She sent me to the bathroom to give a urine sample and after returning to my bed, made me put on the tight compression socks that went all the way up to my knees. Boy are they tight! Then it was time for the IV. I have very small veins and it was very painful. It probably took at least five minutes for the pain to go away.

Then it was time to wait again. After waiting for approximately two hours, I was taken back up to nuclear medicine for lymphoscintigraphy. The radiologist gave me six very painful shots around my spot. When the needle first went in my back, it wasn't too bad, but then I got this extremely painful burning sensation that actually brought tears to my eyes. After dealing with five more shots, I had to lay on my stomach with my neck twisted so that my head was facing to the right, with my hands resting under my head. I had to hold this position for 30 minutes without moving (the longest 30 minutes of my life). After the time was up, I was allowed to relax for a minute or two and then I had a few more scans done in that position. Finally it was time for a small break.

After the break, I had to lay back on my stomach, with my arms above my head and my face down staring at the table; the technician put a towel under my chest, and one under my forehead so that I wouldn't end up suffocating myself. This was for a body scan that went from my head all the way down to my pelvis. After 10-15 minutes of holding this position, I got a 20-minute break. It was nice to be able to move my neck and arms and get the feeling back into my right hand. After the break was over, I had to get back into the first position for a few more images. The procedure took approximately two hours.

Finally I got back to short stay where I waited until 1:30 p.m. before I even got to talk to the anesthesiologist. I told him about my past surgeries, which were already in my chart, and told him that if at all possible, I would rather have local anesthesia rather than general. Half an hour later the OR nurse came by and gave me some drugs and I was taken to the operating room.

The next thing I knew I was in recovery with an oxygen cannula in my nose. Guess I ended up having general anesthesia after all. The nurse asked me if I had any pain, and when I told him that my arm hurt gave me a shot of pain killers. A few minutes later I started crying, well tearing up, and the nurse kept asking me what was wrong. I had no idea. It wasn't the pain, I've had worse—must have been from the drugs. I spent about an hour in recovery and was finally taken back to my "room." As soon as I woke up in the recovery room, I kept telling myself to keep my eyes open. I wanted to go home! I knew that if I fell asleep they would keep me there longer.

Finally I got to leave the recovery room and got back to short stay. Almost immediately after getting back the nurse wanted to know what I wanted to drink. I got cranberry juice, and a little bit later, they made me eat a muffin so that I could take a pain pill. Then I got to just sit there with my mom and wait for them to let me go. At one point, my back was bleeding so bad that I wasn't sure they would even let me leave. Thankfully, the nurses just piled on the gauze (there must have been three to four inches of gauze on my back) and tape and let me leave.

By 1 p.m. the next day all of the bandages were off my back. The compression socks that I was supposed to wear were off by 5 a.m. They were so itchy!

I have three types of closures on my wounds. The incision on my back is closed with both staples and stitches. The only time they hurt is when I forget myself and put pressure on it when I am laying down.

The steri strips under my armpit (lymph node site) are another story. They are incredibly itchy. So itchy that I am almost to the point of ripping them off even though I know that that would be the wrong thing to do. I am allergic to adhesive tape. I put that on the allergy list at the hospital. But I didn't think anything about steri strips, boy am I mad at myself. After doing research on the internet today, I found that people with adhesive allergies get blisters, and super red itchy skin from steri strips. Not only are the strips adhesive, but usually a spray glue is applied to make them stick even more. Apparently I should have just listed adhesive (not adhesive tape). It has been four days since they have been put on, With regular bandaids, within one to two days my skin is cherry red. I can only imagine what the skin under the strips looks like. A day later I removed what I could of the strips. I just couldn't take it any more!

A week after my surgery I got a phone call from the surgeon reminding me about my upcoming appointment. While the receptionist was on the phone, we asked if the biopsy results were in and were told that the lymph node was clear! There was a little bit more melanoma on my back (which doesn't surprise me since the dermatologist just shaved off the lump), but it did not spread to the lymph nodes! The doctor told me that I would not need to have any other treatment. I would just have to come back every six months for check-ups.

About two weeks after my surgery I woke up in an extreme amount of pain. Pain so bad that I couldn't even move my head. It hurt so much that I woke up my Mom to tell her that I was calling off from work because the pain was so bad. Originally I thought that the incision might have gotten infected somehow.

Thankfully it wasn't. The nurse told me that when a surgeon removes a large amount of skin/tissue, the body produces a type of fluid. Usually the body just reabsorbs that fluid, but I was producing too much fluid, too quickly, and my body couldn't reabsorb it fast enough. The swelling was probably caused by the build-up of fluid. I was told to put a warm, damp compress on the spot five times during the rest of day to help it drain. By the next day, the swelling had gone down, but I was still extremely sore. I went back to the doctor two weeks later because I was still draining fluid. I was told that was normal.

I told the nurse that I thought the hole on my back looked like it was getting bigger instead of smaller. She said that it is probably just because I move my arm. I was told that when melanoma is on the back it usually takes longer for the hole to close because the skin isn't as stretchy as it would be on the stomach. It figures, I always have to do things the hard way.

It took a long time for the hole to completely close, and now I have a big scar as a reminder of my ordeal.

It has now been (almost) five years and I have not had any recurrences. Hopefully I never will. At my last appointment the doctor (I still have a hard time calling him my oncologist), told me that I could now stretch out to yearly appointments. I still have a fear that it is going to come back. I probably always will, but I am a survivor!

I hope that by getting my story out I can help someone who has been given a melanoma diagnosis, or has a friend going through this. I cannot stress how important it is to keep an eye on your skin, and if something just doesn't look right, get it checked.