Tag Archives: melanoma

Meat and Cancer

Yesterday the World Health Organization released a study that said that processed meat is a carcinogen. They base this not-so-startling finding on over 800 studies.

Of course PETA was ecstatic, and the meat industry dismissive. But what confounds me is the reaction of my friends.

One says 800 studies are not enough. We need more. In other words, you can have my bacon when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. In fact, another friend actually said that.

Another said, since she was already smoking, she might as well pile on the sausage. I have another friend who said that every one she knows who has quit smoking has died of cancer, so she is not quitting.

I am astonished and dismayed by this very small, simple, unscientific survey of those I interact with on Facebook.

Those who have had cancer know that it isn’t funny, it isn’t something to be taken lightly. It takes a terrible toll on general health, finances, and families. It burdens our health care systems and makes our health insurance premiums go up. It causes excruciating pain, and horrific treatments that can be worse than the actual disease. Just listen to the drug commercials on the nightly news. Listen to the side effects they’re required to list.

And you think it’s fine to risk all of that because you want bacon? Are you insane? Have you ever talked with someone who has endured the treatments for colo-rectal cancer? Being so dismissive of this finding is an insult to everyone who has ever battled cancer.

So next to the “pray for Jennifer’s healing” post with a photo of a bald teenager fighting to graduate high school, and a call for a congressional inquiry into crumb rubber on soccer fields, is a friend of mine posting photos of plates of bacon and saying “yumm…”

We’ve all done stupid things in our lives, things that we should have known better to do. I baked myself in the sun in my teens and twenties, and am reaping the melanoma harvest of those stupid decisions. They say that God looks out for drunks and fools, and I think that’s true. But once you know that what you’re doing is likely to turn out horribly wrong for you ten, twenty years down the line, don’t you think you might forfeit a little sympathy when that time comes?

You risk not seeing your kids grow up. Never meeting your grandchildren or great grandchildren. We all die, but we don’t have to welcome the early onset of a horrible disease. For ham.

I am shocked and saddened.

If you don’t like the WHO’s 800 studies, do your own research. There is plenty of information out there.

Don’t be a fool. Make the right decision for your health, for your family, for the environment.

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About Melanoma

It occurs to me that this could be a teaching moment about melanoma.

My first melanoma began as a large freckle on my left ankle, the size of a dime, with a small flat black mole on the bottom edge of it. The pair had been there since I was a teenaged sun worshipper in the Hawaiian Islands, slathering on baby oil to gently sauté my skin to a golden brown in the tropical sun.

Fast forward thirty-some years to a Jazzercise class in Eugene, Oregon. At the first spring class, I put away my leggings and wore shorts. At the end of class, we were stretching, and I had my face down by my ankle for a close view. The freckle was puffed and pink, now the size of a quarter, the flat black mole was raised up tall, and at the top of the freckle was a little pink nodule with a vein clearly visible in it.

Not to my liking.

The next morning, the freckle was as brown and flat as ever, but the mole was still tall, and the little nodule still there.  When I scratched lightly on the freckle, it puffed up pink.

Since I’m a writer, research is my middle name, and my skin full of moles (I’ve had over a dozen small squamous cell carcinomas cut or frozen off my chest, face and forearms over the years), I went to the internet to look at photos of melanoma. (If you want to see some real nightmare stuff, Google melanoma photos. Good lord!) Mine didn’t look anything like that. But, I reasoned, could it eventually.

Yes.

I went to my family doctor who said he was certain it was nothing, but biopsied not only the tall black mole, but the little nodule. In doing so, he cut right through the freckle. The mole came back malignant melanoma, Breslow’s .9mm, Clark’s level IV. The nodule came back melanoma insitu. No clear margins.

I had a Wide Local Excision with a 3” in diameter skin graft and a sentinel node biopsy. This is where they inject blue dye into the tumor to see what lymph basins it will drain to. Mildly interesting. Made me pee blue for two days.

The freckle was all melanoma. They took out two lymph nodes, both negative for tumor. “What’s next?” I ask.

“If you start coughing blood or have a seizure, give us a call,” was the response from the surgeon.

“Really? No skin checks? No admonition to stay out of the sun?”

“That ship has sailed,” he said.

“Am I cured?”

“We only consider a melanoma patient to be cured of melanoma when they die of something else.” (Note to self: Keep a journal of jarring things that doctors say.)

Well, thanks to the internet, the Melanoma Patients’ Information Page (www.melanoma.org), and a lot more research, I am far more knowledgeable about melanoma than either my general physician or that surgeon. I have taken it upon myself to stay abreast of treatments and my own body. Eighteen months after my WLE, I found an oncologist and argued my way into a brain MRI and a body CT scan, all with negative results. He told me that from here on out, call if I had any symptoms (like what? A seizure or coughing blood?), but it wouldn’t matter if it happened in June or in November, by that time I would be Stage IV and quality of life, blah blah blah.  Meantime, he reiterated that they caught my tumor early, and my chances were good.

Amazing.

Fast forward again, 9 years later. The cloud of a recurrence or a metastasis has slowly dissolved over the years. I was in the clear.

But wait. What’s that weird mole on my shoulder? Has it always looked like that?

I’ve learned over the years that if I run to the dermatologist every time something weird pops up on my skin, I’d be going once a week. (One dermatologist told me that I had ruined my skin in Hawaii and skin cancers would be popping up on me like mushrooms some day.) So I took a photo of this mole and wrote on my calendar to check it again in forty days. I read somewhere once that nodular melanoma doubled in size every forty days.

After forty days, I took another picture and compared them.

And another.

And another. By now, I could see a significant difference. I had it biopsied, as melanoma is a cancer that becomes lethal in increments of tenths of a millimeter.

Sure enough. Melanoma. Dammit. .8 mm. The storm clouds that had just dissipated came roaring back.

Another wide local excision. This surgeon looked over my moles on my arm, the back of my arm and my back and said: “You are a melanoma waiting to happen, aren’t you?” (I guess I have made a memory journal of jarring things that doctors say.)

After the first melanoma, my chances of getting a second one were 8% higher than the normal population. After the second, my chances of getting a third zoom to 33% higher. Now I’m hyper vigilant.

And I need you to be, too.

First: if you have moles, know them. Be familiar with them. Notice any changes in them, and if you find one that’s crusty or bleeding, get thee to a dermatologist.

Secondly: Know the A, B, C, D, E signs of melanoma.

  • A – Asymmetrical. Most moles are symmetrical. Melanoma pushes a mole out of its normal boundaries.
  • B – Borders. Cancer is not organized, so it grows haphazardly as the immune system is trying to suppress it, resulting in notched borders.
  • C – Color. Melanoma can be many colors, including amelanotic, meaning no color at all (skin color). Blue, red, pink, brown, black, pale… check into it.
  • D – Diameter. If you have a mole bigger in diameter than a pencil eraser, it has potential. Be aware.
  • E – Evolving. Anything suspicious that changes.

Melanoma kills. Don’t be afraid, be aware. Get skin checks. Wear sunscreen. Wear a hat.

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Fighting Cancer

That’s the phrase: Fighting Cancer. We call ourselves “warriors.” But is it really the cancer we fight? Sure, there’s an element of that, and I can’t speak to the whole range of waging war from first diagnosis to final dying breath. I’ve been lucky. But I’ve had cancer twice now, and I can speak to the war that I wage.

I fight fear.

I don’t want to live my life in fear. I want to live in love and light and joy. I don’t want melanoma to rob me of that. It may, sometime in the future, but not now. Now I am only Stage 1, for the second time, and still the fears begin to collect in the wee hours of the morning. And believe me, there is enough to fear.

With each thing I read, with each conversation I have with those who have only the finest of intentions, with every glance at the tumor on my shoulder, and soon the scar where the tumor used to be, the fear nibbles at my consciousness. People who love me say all the right things, but even “Good that you caught it so early,” sparks fears that I didn’t catch it early enough. “You’ll be fine,” translates to a slow, steady march toward an ugly black death.

It’s nothing to make a doctor’s appointment, to get an injection, an excision, an infusion. It’s nothing to get a scan and wait for the results. That is medicine battling cancer. My war is much different.

A wise person said to me not long ago: “The only struggles you will ever have are with yourself.” I have found that to be true then, and true every day since then. And so it is with fighting cancer. This is a struggle between me and me. Between my heart and my soul. What cancer does to my body I can do little about except hope to make the all the proper decisions at the appropriate moments.

Meanwhile, I wait for my surgery appointment and work hard not to torture myself or others. I try to educate people about sunscreen and sun protection and checking their moles regularly for changes. I want people to be screened regularly by their dermatologists. The problem is, the best way to get the attention of others is by revving up their fears. I show them the scar on my ankle (a 3” diameter skin graft), and catch myself saying, “Aren’t you glad that’s not on your face?” And I’m ashamed of myself for working so hard to keep the fear from my own mind while pouring it onto others.

Be kind to those who are fighting cancer, for their enemies are legion. For me, for today, I’ll let the doctors fight my cancer, and I’ll concentrate on fighting my fears.

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Skin cancers

Since I’ve opened this particular can of worms, instead of merely ranting, perhaps I could pass along some valuable information.

Melanoma is deadly. 75,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year, and 7,500 will die. The rest will be mightily disfigured. Normally, melanoma begins in a mole, which grows, changes, bleeds, itches, or just looks funky. Know your skin. Go annually to a dermotologist for an all-over skin check, and I do mean all-over. Scalp, butt, crotch, armpits, the whole nine yards. Take photos of anything suspicious, so you can monitor it for slow changes. Bring any of those changes to your doctor’s attention.

Know the ABCDs of Melanoma.

A: Asymetrical. Cancer is not organized, so while most moles are relatively round, cancer grows in scattered patterns. If a mole has changed so that one half of it is a different shape than the other half, that’s suspicious. Get it checked out.

B. Borders. Because cancer grows in a disorganized way, the borders of a melanoma will be notched, not smooth and round like most moles.

C. Color. Melanoma can be all colors, from blue to pink, brown, black and even skin-colored (amelanotic).

And D. Diameter. Any mole over 1/4″ in diameter (the size of a pencil eraser)ought to be looked at and monitored.

I will add to this E. Elevation. My melanoma was a mole that grew from flat to tall.

But melanoma is not the only skin cancer. There are also squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas. All of them need to be diagnosed and removed as early as possible. These are not as life-threatening as melanoma, but they should be treated as soon as they are noted.

The bottom line is: know your skin. Pay attention to changes. Don’t tan. Stay out of the direct sun. Wear sunscreen and cover up.

Read more about it at American Cancer Society.

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Gratitude – and a Rant

I know I have pledged to keep this blog about gratitude for the month of November, and my gratitude knows no bounds, literally. I have a wonderful husband, family, job, dog, house, friends… every detail of my life (except one) is quite wonderful, and I am exceedingly appreciative.

The one exception is my skin. And I’m going to rant about this because I just had another biopsy (the third just this year) because I ruined my skin by sun worshipping in Hawaii for seventeen years.

The first time I had a squamous cell carcinoma cut off my chest, the dermotologist said, “Oh, yes, you’ve ruined your skin. These things will be popping up like mushrooms for the rest of your life.” He was right. I’ve had literally dozens taken off, and had a very serious bout with melanoma that will continue to haunt me. I caught it early, but as the oncologist said, “We don’t consider anyone cured of melanoma until they die of something else.”

All because I loved being tan.

Why do I bring this up now? Because I have just had what we all think is a basal cell carcinoma biopsied from the middle-finger knuckle on my left hand. Basal cell is not that big a deal; it grows and the scars are ugly when it’s removed (I might need a skin graft–my second), but it’s not life-threatening. All because I liked having that “healthy glow” from a suntan.

When they cut one off my face, I almost fainted a half hour later in a department store and had to sit on a big canister of popcorn in a display and put my head between my knees. Imagine having someone cut on your face because twenty years earlier you wanted to wear a strapless dress and not have a tan line.

My gym offers a deal when you buy multiple tanning sessions at a time. I am here to tell you, living proof with scars from my face to my ankles and a perpetual cloud hanging over my happiness, tanning is expensive.

You can’t afford it.

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