In honor of Melanoma Monday, we truly appreciate you sharing your very personal experiences with Melanoma and participating with MoleSafe in helping to build awareness for this terrible disease. Why don’t we start by you telling us a bit about yourself?
My name is Michelle, I am 50 years old from Cameron Park, California. I am an outdoor lover, endurance runner, CrossFit enthusiast, hiker, skier, and tennis player.
You have enjoyed the outdoors for years. How did you come to know that you had melanoma?
My experience with melanoma began at the start of Summer 2014. I always saw the beginning of summer as a new beginning – maybe not the beginning we want, but a new beginning nonetheless. It is when the running season is far more exciting; it’s the season I thrive in.
On June 6th I took my daughter to Nevada from California for the Ted Talks in Reno. My daughter and I spent that entire day being inspired by innovative and creative speakers, grazed on amazing meals, and walked away from that experience feeling inspired. The following Saturday we woke up, loaded up on coffee and went for a run in the mountains. It was already 90 degrees at 9:30 am as we were 5000 ft up in the mountains. I always run in clothes I feel comfortable in a tank top to soak in the sun, capris, and Vibrams. I didn’t use sunscreen. However, I did moisturize with lotion (this was my way of justifying the fact that I rarely used sunscreen). I love the sun.
After our run, we decided to jump in the pool to cool off and to get out of the now 100-degree heat. As we lazily floated in the pool my daughter said something that startled me, “Mom, what is that on your back?” At first, I flailed around and screamed “Get it off!” thinking it was a bug. My daughter said, “No mom, let me get my phone and take a picture.” She did and what we saw was a really peculiar looking quad-colored mole. I was stunned and knew what I saw was not good.
A lot of people think their skin is tough. We get cut and it heals. We get burned and it heals. How did your thinking change with the diagnosis?
You presume all these stories about skin cancer, but I thought it was something easily fixable. I emailed my doctor with the picture right away and saw him that Monday. That Tuesday I saw a dermatologist and she took a biopsy. The result was melanoma and that I would need surgery. It took 13 days after my surgery to get the results of the pathology report which told us that the four-colored spot was aggressive stage II melanoma. That day I saw another surgeon, he scheduled a large and invasive surgery the following day.
I have since lost one-quarter of the skin on my back, all over a spot found in a pool on a sunny day. I believe this was a stage II but it had spread heavily, heading right for my spinal cord. My surgeon said that if we had not found it that June, I would have been dead in one year. I now have a 15+ inch scar and this was the first of 5 back surgeries, as it continually comes back to the scene of the crime.
We all believe in many ways that our skin protects us. We also need to protect our skin by identifying problems early. What have you done differently since your initial diagnosis of melanoma?
Once you are diagnosed with melanoma, you need to realize that it is acceptable to lose your dignity in an exam room, as a dermatologist needs to inspect every inch of your skin. I go in every 3-4 months for a follow-up skin screening, depending on the severity of the ones before it.
Since my first diagnosis, I have had two more major surgeries: one on my chest in July 2016 and then again in two places on my back in December 2016. Since June 2014 I have had 18 lesions/moles excised, 3 were benign and 3 were Nevus but needed removal.
How much did you know about melanoma prior to being diagnosed?
I knew nothing about melanoma before my diagnosis. I had to become an expert via Google and then I became a Certified Educator through the Melanoma Research Foundation because I realized how much I DID NOT know.
It’s Melanoma Monday and we want to help everyone to enjoy the sun, but still protect themselves. What would you like everyone to learn from your experience?
My experience with melanoma was based on fear (mainly) and utter shock in the beginning. I am an all-organic, non-GMO, wheat-grass drinking, athletic, healthy person who thought “this could never happen to me.” Fear of the unknown, fear of pain, fear of what’s lurking around the corner next is a hard pill to swallow. Most people think melanoma has a cure. Some have even said that “I am super lucky I only just have skin cancer” (I sometimes want to throw things at them). This is one of the hardest lessons life has thrown at me. Hearing the words “cancer” or “malignant melanoma,” the doctor might as well have said there was a truckload of tarantulas waiting for me in my bedroom – that’s the kind of FEAR. The most difficult part is that there is no definitive cure and I miss the sun. I resent the sun now for turning on me.
What made you want to become a Certified Melanoma Educator? What did you learn that you think people need to know about Melanoma?
My decision to become a Certified Educator was based on a situation that happened with a friend in my support group who went from 5 years NED (No Evidence of Disease) – to Stage 4 cancer with lung mets. I just couldn’t wrap my head around melanoma. I have always been an overachiever. I don’t just read about topics – I get degrees, licenses, and certification(s) in them. It’s a weird quirk about me, I just need to know the WHAT IF’s. I have also seen people say some really dumb and unintelligible stories about melanoma. There is so much inaccurate data out there in melanoma land; I wanted to be certain that I get it RIGHT. People need to know that there is no definitive cure for melanoma; all we can do is take preventative actions and detect it early:
- Always follow your doctor’s instructions and recommendations
- Be cautious of how much time you are spending in the sun
- ALWAYS use sunscreen (at least SPF 40)
- Wear UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing and always wear a hat. They can be expensive but CANCER is way more expensive
- Never let your guard down and ALWAYS watch your own skin. It only takes 10 minutes to do a self-skin check, I have found two new moles on my skin just over the past weekend. If you are ever concerned with a mole you find DO NOT hesitate to seek medical help.
How did you hear about MoleSafe’s Skin Surveillance Program?
I heard about MoleSafe through a Melanoma Support Group (The Melahomies). A few have gone to MoleSafe, not many had talked much about it though. The Skin Surveillance Program addresses one of the key means of identifying melanomas early – changes in your skin. The high-resolution images taken and compared over time by MoleSafe’s experts identify changes earlier than traditional screenings.
I would refer everyone to MoleSafe. I want my daughter to go now. My doctor thought it was awesome that I went.
Michelle, we all thank you for sharing your experience with us for Melanoma Monday.