The east is defrosting and the west has been unseasonable warm. The sun is shining and I think after most people’s winter, we are feeling an extreme right to sit outside and soak up the warmth. Which, of course, is one of my favorite things to do. Over the past year, I have had to look at that moment a bit differently. And because of that shift in thinking, the change in season makes this the perfect time for me to tell my story.
I grew up in Northern California, Roseville, CA to be exact.
I spent every waking moment in our backyard pool. I took my first lessons at
18-months and hated every moment of it. For the next 16 months, I would hold
onto the side of the pool… walking my fingers around the kidney bean shape all
day long. And then, I went for it. At 3, I started to fully swim and loved
every second of it. First it was summer
swim team then I joined the year round team. If I wasn’t in the pool I was
either eating or sleeping, which were really just considered breaks in the
I remember getting sunburn several times during long swim meets
and I remember hating it, almost beating myself up mentally for allowing it to
happen. When I was in high school, my dad took me on vacation to Turks and
Caicos. I remember him giving me a hard time for putting on so much sunscreen.
I just never wanted to get sunburn. Even now, my husband will laugh at me when
I seem a little red at the end of a day in the sun. He giggles at how afraid I am, of the burn.
In my defense, I never went to a tanning salon. My source of
tan came from hours and hours face down, for the most part, in an outdoor swim
pool. I was in that pool morning and night for up to 24 hours a week. I never
trained indoors. And, honestly, I loved it. You could always tell the kids that
trained indoor when we got to Nationals. The skin color said it all.
My skin color came from my dad… and his mother. Grandma
Elaine was from British Guyana in South America. My dad, Bob, is a firm
believer in the power and healing properties in the sun. He would come home
from work everyday and take a good hour nap in the sun. He has never, ever worn
a drop of sunscreen. My dad was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley in
LA. He ran track and was outside doing so. He tanned quite well. My brother
used to say, “My dad and my sister tan so easily they can tan indoor with the
fluorescent lights.” Add to that, the fact that on both sides of my gene pool,
there were no cases of melanoma. It simply doesn’t run in my family. That was a
comfort for sure.
About 2 years ago, I noticed a little brown, round freckle
on the back of my right calf. It was tiny, but quite dark and definitely new.
As time went on, my husband would mention it often. “That’s definitely new. You
should get that checked out.” It wasn’t odd shaped, it wasn’t raised and it
seemed completely normal. I just didn’t think anything of it. And, I thought of
all the reasons it wasn’t anything to worry about. My skin color, my family
doesn’t get skin cancer… It can wait.
Those are the 3 most dangerous words. “It Can Wait”. And
that is meant to scare you a bit.
I didn’t even make the dermatologist appointment for the
frole. (that is what I called it, freckle-mole) Have you ever tried to get an
appointment to really get checked out by a good dermatologist?? You literally
have to wait 6 months. Well, this dermatologist could see me in a couple of
days. I had him look at something on my face…and then, it was a total and
complete after-thought. I said to him while pointing at my calf, “Oh yeah. What
do you think this is?” He said, “How long have you had it?” When I told him
only a couple of years, he said, “You really shouldn’t be getting any new
moles.” Hmmm. Interesting. And then, the classic line… “I am not worried about
it. We don’t need to take it off now.” I quickly went back and forth in my
mind. And then decided, “I am here. Let’s just do it.”
About ten days later on a Thursday when my mom was visiting,
I got a call that went a little something like this.
-Hi this is Summer.
-This is Dr. X’s office, we got your pathology results and the
doctor needs to see you tomorrow.
-What? Tomorrow? That can’t be good. What’s wrong?
-Well, you have a severely A-typical malignant melanoma.
-He wants to see you tomorrow to talk about it. You need to
get it out.
And then we made the appointment and hung up.
I turned to my mom who was staring at me the entire
conversation and she wanted to know what the woman said. I had no idea. So I
called the office back. Then, I got my pathology. Yup, melanoma.
We didn’t know what any of it meant and there were some
words that comforted us and some that freaked us out. I won’t go into detail
about that but I will say that when you take your own pathology and then hop on
the internet to attempt to understand it, the results can be frightening. Managing your health when you get news like
this is a full time job. I called one office about getting it taken out and
their next appointment was in 2 ½ months. I am not a doctor but I knew I didn’t
want to live with this in my calf for that long. So, I called another doctor
and had the procedure a week later. A friend of mine came with me to the
appointment. I had not heard anything from a doctor’s mouth what my pathology results
meant until he walked through the door. And the 3rd sentence out of
his mouth was, “Well, I can’t tell you that you are not going to die from this
and I won’t know that for 5 years.” I started to laugh…. I assumed he was
kidding. And then I looked at my friend and we both sat up straighter like we had
been misbehaving in class.
Melanoma is a tricky SOB. Basically, they “excised” the area
around the mole. I describe it like an ice cream scoop out of my calf and
stitched me up. I was chatting with my friend the entire time. I then showed
him a tiny speck of a freckle on my other calf. He said, “I would never take
this off but since you say it looked a lot like the other one, let’s get it out
and take a look.” He used a hole-punch like tool and sent me home.
A week later, good news and bad news. Looks like they got
all the right side out. Now just the wait and see if any little cells went off
on their own to cause trouble. But, that left calf came back “severely
A-typical melanoma”. The right calf was
stage I and left was caught even earlier…it wasn’t even stage I yet. They cut out a small amount around the
freckle and, again, away I went.
When I walked out of the room, I suddenly realized I had
never had a full body scan. In this whole process, it was always my detection
that caught the skin cancer. Two super harmless looking spots on my brown skin.
But I knew that I needed the real scan done. So, on Feb 24th, 2
months after making the appointment, I got into the Cancer Center and every
spot on my skin is documented. I now go in every 6 months. I now have my
husband checking my hair every now and again. I now look at every spot with a “guilty
until proven innocent” type of mentality.
I am not scared of the sun. I am not mad at it. Honestly,
the doctor couldn’t even tell me how or why I got this. Sure, I assume it’s
because I was face down in the pool for so many years but I am not sure that is
the cause. What I do know is that melanoma can look like anything…brown, black,
pink…it can be raised or flat…it can be round or odd shaped. You have to know your
own skin. And, if you are in your 40’s or older, and you get a new spot, a new
freckle you MUST get it checked out! If you have a spot that has made you
curious, NOW is the time. Please don’t say, IT CAN WAIT…because it cannot.