It’s melanoma. It’s a nasty, vicious, aggressive cancer and it strikes fear deep into my soul. We lost a truly great family friend to this melanoma thing not so long ago. I know what it can do. I know I cried when my dermatologist called with the pathology report.
I was getting my annual skin check with nurse practitioner Amy and she’s giving me a running commentary on the condition of my epidermis. This spot here we’ll freeze. This spot here – what is that? When did you notice it? Etc.
When she got to the crown of my head though, and she was going through my hair like she was looking for lice, she stops. She works to part more of my hair. She asks a question. “When was this biopsied before?” I’m thinking, when was WHAT biopsied before? She explains the spot she’s looking at, and that it appears to have scar tissue from a previous…a previous…what?
I’m a tall guy, and I’ve banged my head hard enough to bleed on assorted objects and edifices more than a few times over the years. Was it one of those episodes, or is there some distant unremembered dermatological event? I don’t know what.
Well, says she, it looks like a melanoma, so we definitely should biopsy it. After dropping this not-so-little bombshell, she goes on with the rest of the exam. Concluding her search, Amy tells me she’d like to freeze this-and-that, and have a go at my scalp to biopsy the melanoma. She’s not even saying “possible” or “probable” or giving any “maybes” at all. And she asks me if it’s okay to do the biopsy.
Is it okay? IS IT OKAY?!?! Fuck yes it’s okay, get this damn thing off me, get it off me now! NOW! Well, that’s what was going on in my head. To her, I just say, yes, let’s get it done. In which it ensues that I receive a numbing injection, a scalpelled incision and a single stitch – with some nice nitro freezes here and there.
Four Days. Four business days. That’s how long the pathology report will take. We’re at the ball park. Cards-Cubs. Waiting for the first pitch. Cell phone rings. Dr. Dermatology calling. Confirms it’s a melanoma. My world stops. They say something-something cancer clinic – will get in touch something something -it’s early something-something. Hang up.
I sit in stunned silence for a moment, then turn to my wife. And speak the words. And I stare into space, my insides jello in a malignant-death what’-going-to-happen kind of distant-planet way. I have a melanoma.
I have many genetic reasons why MY plan is to live to 90 (60-something now), more if I can keep active. THIS melanoma bullshit is NOT IN THE PLAN! (Some quote thingy – “life is what happens when you are busy making plans.”)
We abandon the game.
Now I’m no stranger to diseases of the skin. A child of the late 60’s sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll generation, with plenty of outdoor nudity for various reasons – skinny dipping mostly, but some happy sexual romps too. Then in my business-man 30’s – look how sexy my nice tanned body is!
So I’ve had a few basal cell lymphomas, and a squamous, as well as other lesser solar attacks on my skin. But this.
I start to joke that I’ve hit the skin cancer trifecta – but no one in my family thinks this is funny. And I finally, after days of depression, worry and general personal self grieving – start to take the reins of discovery and treatment into my own hands.
First call is to the dermatologist. I give them my vague memories of the call – that I should be hearing from the cancer clinic, and what exactly did you say about my melanoma, and where do we go from here, and, and, and…
It’s a “Melanoma In Situ”. Which means we caught it really early. Best they can tell, it hasn’t penetrated into the dermis. This is good. The dermis, the deep “true” skin layer underneath the top epidermis is where all kinds of things happen. Where the lymph nodes live. Where cancers spread their wings and inhabit other parts of the body. Where a melanoma can kill you. We’re not there yet.
I’m expecting a call any day now.
A N Y fucking D A Y.
A week goes by. Okay, it was over Memorial Day, so I add in a day or two. No call from the clinic. I call the dermatologist again. And I hear, “Uhhhh… Oops.”
Seems they sent the pathology report and request for services et al to the wrong fax number. “We’ve now corrected that, and you should hear from the clinic in 3 or 4 days. If not, call us back, okie-dokie?” But the way this played in my head is: “”It’s Tuesday morning. I’m calling the clinic after noon TODAY to confirm the shit got there.”
Which I do. The peeps at the melanoma clinic (and yes, that’s what they call it) are super sweet and understanding when I call, “just checking to see (in my head: IF THE FUCKING INFO ARRIVED) if y’all got the fax from my dermatologist”?
Reply is, no not yet, but since I’ve called, let’s set up an appointment for you? Cool! PROGRESS! They’re going to see me before I die! SWEET! So we’re all set for a mere week and a half away I think.
I call again a few days later – yes, they got the files, but are waiting on the pathology slides from the lab. We should be good to go by next week. Excellent, I thought. And by now I have a whole host of questions written down that I want answers to in our appointment. I’m psyched. I’m ready. The big day is nigh – we’ll go to the clinic in the morning.
At 4:30PM, the night before the appointment and the surgery and THE ANSWERS! – the clinic calls. Terribly sorry, but the pathology slides didn’t come yet, we need to put you off another week. WHUT?!?!
Actually, my loving spouse got that call, which was a good thing, because when she texted me this joyful message, I exploded in a tirade of FUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKETY FUCK FUCKS! at no one because I was alone in my car and it actually made me feel better.
I need to assure you, there was mass alcohol consumption that night.
So now it’s the morning I’m SUPPOSED BE BEING TREATED but I’m not, I’m home, on the phone with the clinic. Now seriously, these people are sweet, VERY understanding, KNOW they are dealing with stressed out peeps, etc. And again, I’m all honey because that’s how I roll.
Talking to the LPN who is apologizing like crazy, we agree to move forward and plan a date that works. We’re on for the 26th now. He also passes me along the contact info for the lab. (I like to be an active participant in my health care.)
Then he does the unthinkable. He puts the doctor for my case on the line. I talked to the actual physician. On the phone. SUPER COOL! She tells me that, looking at the path report, and subject to looking at the actual slides, I have one of the best possible cases for a successful outcome. The tumor is shallow and not aggressive yet. It can be treated surgically. Delay is not an issue. I could have kissed her.
At a fairly early stage, melanoma starts to invade your body. It ain’t pretty. But we’re not there yet. (A fav doctor joke: “Give it to me straight, Doc, how long do I have before I have to follow your advice?)
So now I have a mission. It took me several tries and several numbers to get through to the lab, and while they protested that “we just got the request for the slides today” (seriously? I almost laughed, but bit it). “I’m fine with that, just wanted to know when you think they can be at the clinic.” Tomorrow is the reply. Sweet!
At this point the accumulated stress and emotions of the last couple of weeks took their toll. When the going gets tough, the tough take a nap. 3 glorious hours of the best sleep I’ve had in weeks. But wait. There’s more!
The next day, the doctor calls me. Head of the department no less. It’s 2019 and the actual freaking doctor called ME!!! She starts off with, thanks for getting on the lab. That did the trick, and we appreciate you helping. (COOL!) “But…
…the oncology doctor doing the actual surgery is on vacation next week…”
(WHUT!?!?!?!? WTAF?!?!?! SNAFU! SNAFU! SNAFU! in my head)
“…so we need to reschedule you. BUT, we have a plan. If you could make it up here (hour and a half drive) this afternoon, we could do the initial surgery blah blah blah.”(The “blahs” are here for brevity, NOT because I wasn’t listening.) I’m ready to jump in the car and go, but…but…but. No.
Not that easy.
If we do that, I’m going to have an open wound on top of my head for over a week.
Because, ultimately I still need to see the oncology surgeon to certify I’m “clean of cancer” and close up the site. For this, I need to consult with my sweet spouse. We have company coming for the next couple of weeks. Swimming in the lake is def going to happen. Not good with open wounds.
The doctor gives me her freaking direct phone number! Just call her back and let her know what we want to do. I’m starting to feel like I must have donated a few million dollars to this clinic in a previous life.
Oh, and the best “news” part: She got together with the surgeon, and the two of them looked at the slides, and they see no problem with me waiting until the week AFTER the 4th of July holiday to come in. Then she gives me her direct e-mail addy, so I can send her current pics of the top of my head.
She wanted to confirm the cancer hadn’t changed or grown in the last 3-4 weeks. Which it has not. So we’re now ON for the week after the 4th. I honestly can’t wait to meet these people. For all kinds of reasons, but firstly for their outright humanity.
Stay tuned – next chapter coming soon. Meantime:
If you haven’t been to a dermatologist in a while, GO. Go as soon as they can see you. I’ve been in annually for many years – this isn’t my first rodeo with skin cancers.
Don’t put off getting yourself looked at.
And for ALL medical issues – don’t sit and wait for things to happen.
Take control. PARTICIPATE in your healthcare.
With kindness and honey. Lot’s of honey.
If you have to scream and yell, well, that’s what mirrors are for.