The cancerous mole started out as a black dot on my upper shoulder that I first noticed as a teenager: a little black dot between my shoulder blades that didn’t quite make it above my collar. I only remember that because, like any teenager, I was ultra-aware of my looks and logged every change with equal parts self-awareness and anxiety. As I grew older, I dismissed it.
When My Common Mole Became an Uncommon Mole
I actually didn’t notice it myself. My family took a day trip to Indiana Beach, an old-fashioned water park that was much more fun as a fifteen-year-old than a thirty-year-old. I had just peeled off my shirt and was about to take a dunk in the Lazy River when my mom said, “Hey, when did this pop up?” Then she poked it.
She called my father over and both of them assessed the mole’s size, color and symmetry (I should probably add both are in medicine). I was thirty but felt like I was ten. I didn’t complain though; my mom never cried wolf on health issues. When she told me to get it checked out, I did.
What Does Skin Cancer Look Like? In My Case, a Smudged Raisin
I had to double-check the hospital discharge sheet to get the name right, but it took my family doctor all of twenty seconds to diagnose the “dysplastic nevus with 4 mm melanoma” and tell me it had to be removed. It looked like a small, smudged raisin. No pain, no discomfort, except for the thought of thousands of mutated cells squirming under my skin. I wouldn’t say I was scared, just uncomfortable. Like a thousand patients before me, I imagined I could feel it burying its poisonous roots into my body.
Removing the Mole: Just like a Cookie Cutter
The surgeon offered to let me watch them remove the mole. I don’t faint and I’m not squeamish, but I said I’d rather not. My imagination would do the job just fine. They basically just punch it out like a bad hunk of cookie dough with a biopsy punch. The punch had a little pink handle and looked cheap and flimsy (since the hospital billed my insurance for the tool, I am sure it cost $700).
The entire operation took thirty-two minutes, thirty of which was waiting for the local anesthetic to sit in. They swabbed my back with rubbing alcohol, then shot in a few cc’s of local anesthetic. I waited. And waited. When my back started feeling like a shawl of ice, the surgeon came in, a little Thai woman that talked a mile-a-minute. It took me a moment to realize this was how she put patients at ease. She chatted with me about the weather, my work, her work, the Cubs and the chances of Obama getting elected (this was in September of 2008).
I didn’t feel a thing. Really. All I felt was a moment of intense pressure and then something trickling down my back. Later on, I would realize it was blood. That was it. Another minute to stitch me then a slap on a shoulder and a few signs of infection to watch out for. Then she was gone.
The Skin Cancer Doesn’t Strike Back, Six Years Later
It’s been six years, and all I have there is a puckered scar. I don’t have a moral for cancer survivors because if I said I was one (although I am) I feel like a fraud. There are people that have or had REAL cancer out there. They have the right to call themselves ‘survivors.’ I don’t think I’ve earned it. If I had to give a single piece of advice, it’s “Get It Checked Out. Early.” Had I waited or ignored my mother or the doctor, I might have had an experience bad enough to call myself a survivor.