True Story: I Have Melanoma
23 is a young age for a lot of things. It is a young age to be a mother, to be on your own, to lose a friend, or to have cancer. Yet, all of these things and more happen to young people every day.
It was a cold day in November when I got the phone call from the dermatologist telling me my results were back and I needed to come into the office the same day. As I put down the phone, I looked at my boyfriend and nervously laughed and said, “Well that can’t be good.” Since I am a full time student, I had to go to class before I could even think about heading to a doctor. I sat through the hour and fifteen minute class thinking that maybe I was being silly and everything was going to be fine. Surely a girl who is 23 years old, outgoing, determined, and full of life could not have cancer. It had to be something else.
The drive to the office took too long and I called my mom on the way to deter some thoughts. She immediately went into full panic mode and I couldn’t understand why. By the time I arrived at the doctor, she had called five times to find out what was wrong but they wouldn’t tell her because I am an adult. I sat alone in the room and waited for the nurse practitioner. She was the only that would see me that day because the doctor was too busy. She sat down and said, “Katie, you have level four Melanoma and the next step is for you to go see a surgeon in St. Louis to have the tumor removed.”
It’s hard to explain what I was feeling at the moment I was processing everything she was saying. I don’t really know if I was feeling anything but disbelief. I’m not sure that I was even processing it. I just shook my head like I was some kind of bobble head so she knew I was still listening. The strangest thing, after looking back on it all, is the feeling that I just wanted to please her or that I couldn’t cry because I needed to be strong. I asked her different questions about what the biopsy meant and she couldn’t tell me. At this point the hardest thing was that she didn’t know the details or the main question everyone wanted to know:
Was I going to die?
As I waited for my mom in the room, I went numb. I thought back to all the years I laid in tanning beds and knew it was bad but didn’t trust my instincts. Most fake-bakers out there will know what feeling I’m talking about; that gnawing feeling that this is bad for you. This is bad for you like any other bad habit, but you’re young and healthy and nothing could ever hurt you. You’ve seen the little sign on the side of the tanning bed but you still step in with the certainty that those signs are just for legalities and don’t pertain to you.
I started to cry and was slightly embarrassed. I was embarrassed because I didn’t even know what I was crying for. I didn’t even know if this was serious or not. I was just like any other person, and didn’t really know what Melanoma was or how deadly it can be. But I had the “Big C” and so I cried. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be feeling. I knew they had probably diagnosed a lot of people who had lived full lives with Melanoma, but I was different. How is a 23 year old who just found she has cancer supposed to act?
Two weeks later, I had MOHS surgery to have the tumor removed and I had some lymph nodes removed as well. When I woke up from the surgery, I was in a lot of pain and I needed a month’s worth of physical therapy to get my arm back to working right. The next time I saw the surgeon, he was unsure whether they had found more cancer further up my arm. It was all very confusing and I thought I would have to go on chemotherapy. This is when it all became too real. I started to wonder if I was going to be a statistic for Melanoma deaths rather than for Melanoma survivors.
After weeks of research, I found a Melanoma clinic in the area that examined my slides and they didn’t believe I still had Melanoma. I wonder everyday who it is I should be listening to and how I can save myself. After having all different kinds of scans, it is still unclear if I still have cancer and all I can really do is to check my skin and lymph nodes every three months with a specialist. Since I am on a full-ride scholarship and can’t risk losing it by missing classes, I have left chemo out of the equation until someone can give me a definite answer. Some people may think this is a risky choice but this has been a big financial burden for me, so the last thing I need to do is lose my scholarship and make it worse.
Melanoma is a very sneaky cancer because, like my mole, it does not always look like the typical Melanoma. The only reason I was concerned about it was because it itched. Melanoma diagnosis increase by 3.1 percent each year and it is being found more and more in young Caucasian females. Melanoma is the most common form of skin cancer in young adults 25-29 years old, and the second most common form of cancer in adolescents and young adults 15-29 years old. The scariest facts on Melanoma are that 75 percent of skin cancer deaths are related to Melanoma and someone dies from Melanoma every 61 minutes. This is obviously something that needs to be taken seriously because young adults are being diagnosed at an increasingly alarming rate. Still, no one my age understands or believe that it could happen to them. Young adults never believe they are invincible. I am here to tell you, you are not. It can happen to you and it is completely preventable.
At this point, if you are a tanner, it is time to quit. Bronze skin is not worth it. Believe me, it took me a long time to get used to being pale, but now I love my natural, healthy color.
Right now, I’m just trying to live my life as normally as possible. I’m trying not to think about my disease or what it might mean for me down the road. I want to go to school and when summer comes, I want to spend it at the beach. I don’t know which one but I am just going to hop in the car and start driving towards the coast. After I get there and I lay out my towel, I’m going to slather on the sunscreen, open up a cold-one, and be young again.
[A very special thanks to reader Kathleen for sharing her story with us. She and her friends are working tirelessly to fight against tanning beds and warn college students of the dangers associated with them. Honor her struggle and protect yourself.]