I was diagnosed with invasive malignant melanoma in June. I invite you to listen to my story, my journey, and what I’ve learned.....
You hear of people finding spots on their skin all the time, spots that are cause for concern. I live in Florida, born and raised. If you also live in a sunny place, you probably know someone who had a spot "cut off" of them because it was skin cancer or "about" to be skin cancer. It's common... to get it. Apparently, it happens to... everybody. Like catching the flu. Not ideal, but you deal with it. Yep... That’s what I thought.
Unfortunately, I've learned that's not the case. There are many different types of skin cancer. The vast majority of skin cancer diagnosis's reported are basil cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. BCC almost never spreads (metastasizes) beyond the original tumor site. It is highly treatable and 95 % curable. SCC is very similar in that it is rare to metastasize.
Melanoma, even though we've all heard of it... is a completely different beast. Only about 1% of all skin cancer diagnoses are invasive melanoma, but it causes most of the skin cancer deaths. I honestly didn’t know much about melanoma before I had it... besides the fact you definitely don’t want it.
I made a dermatology appointment to have my body and worrisome spot examined. Nobody told me to get a consult. I currently do not have health insurance nor did a primary care doctor refer me to a dermatologist. I saw a spot on my body. I paid attention and I noticed it changing. My intuition told me almost a year ago to get it looked at. I waited. I thought, "Nah. No way. I’m being crazy, this can’t be anything." Then the voice inside me grew louder, “Don't await. This is serious” Another couple months passed and the voice grew even louder “Go, Rachael. Go get this looked at. You’re timing is almost up”. I finally listened.
On June 11th, I went for my skin screen. They saw my spot and I had a routine biopsy. It was a Monday. They told me I should get a call Thursday or Friday with my results. I was surprised to get a call from my doctor the very next day asking me to come in to discuss the pathology report of my biopsy. I immediately thought, "This is not good. They only make you come in if it’s BAD news.”
I drove to my doctors, waited for an hour which felt like a year. Once in, I learned that I had invasive malignant melanoma. My tumor was a level 3 out of 5 in depth (Clark’s Level) and at a high risk of metastasizing. I cried... obviously. Asked questions. And then left pretty turned upside down. Promising I wouldn’t WebMD myself into a dark hole, I waited. An oncologist was due to look at my case and I’d know more in the coming days.
I went from healthy and happy to consulting with an oncologist about a cancerous tumor living inside of me. Whatttt......?!? I’d like to believe I was chill. But you can ask my close friends and family... I was a little unhinged.
Surgery, 32 stitches, and thankfully clean margins and success- I’m cancer free and in recovery. I’m working on healing a scar from the 6-inch incision on my belly (where my melanoma was). I’m blessed to only have a warrior badge to remind me of this journey and nothing more.
I got lucky my friends. Very lucky. My doctor told me that had I waited just a few more months I’d be singing a very different tune. You see, my melanoma was found at the very last layer of tissue before it can travel to your lymph nodes, organs, and other areas of your body. Like last call at you favorite bar. You’re either down for the count or going home safe and sound. Luckily I’m home safe and sound.
The cancer I discovered had been living inside me for sometime, and I can’t describe to you how jarring it is to not know. Not know if it’s spread. Not know if they got it all. Not know if you’ll be okay. I’m incredibly grateful to have found mine before it spread. I’m beyond grateful my surgeon got it all. I’m sharing my journey to spark a little awareness and to hopefully shine a light on a form of cancer that if let undetected can take your life. That even in your 20s, or for me... one month following my 30th birthday, you can be diagnosed with cancer. Melanoma should be taken seriously, because unlike what I thought before. It’s not like catching the flu. It doesn’t happen to everyone. And it most certainly can happen to you. Please please check out your skin y’all, especially if you’re an outdoors person like me.
I’d like to personally thank all my friends and family for their unwavering support. My mom for holding my hand and letting me cry. My boyfriend at the time, for going to my doctors appointments and sitting by my side through it all, and managing to make me smile even when I was scared. Thank you to my two fearless paddleboard instructors, Dan and Cindy who helped run my kids paddleboard camps when the doctors told me I couldn’t get on the water. Thank you to my employers who let me miss work and never let me feel like a burden for being unable to show up when I was struggling so deeply. Thank you to my roommate Jess for listening to me when I was scared and confused and for refusing to let me feel alone. I’m so blessed to have a seriously badass support system and so many loving folks in my life.
Life is a wild ride and we never know what we are going to get dealt. I feel really friggin lucky to be here and healthy once again. Thank you for reading my story and pleaseeeeee wear sunscreen!
Here’s a few more telling facts to leave y’all with if you want to know a little more-
Although 63 is the average age that people are diagnosed with melanoma, it is common in people younger than 30. In fact, it is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in young adult women.
The most important warning sign for melanoma is a new spot on the skin or a spot that’s changing in size, shape, or color. A spot that looks different from all of the other spots on your skin can also be a warning. If you have any of these warning signs, have your skin checked by a doctor.
The chance of curing a melanoma is often very good if it’s found and treated early. But if left alone, it can grow and spread quickly, which can make it much harder to treat.
Melanoma can be treated and removed when it is caught early – and about 84% of cases are caught before they spread. For melanoma that has not spread, the survival rate at 5 years is 98%. However, melanoma is more likely than other skin cancers to spread to lymph nodes or other organs, which makes it more dangerous. The 5-year survival rate is 62% for regional melanoma, which is melanoma that has spread to lymph nodes. The 5-year survival rate is 18% for distant melanoma, which is melanoma that has spread to other parts of the body. In 2017, about 9,730 people are expected to die from melanoma.