Shortly after the birth of my daughter my sister travelled from California to visit us in Virginia. One afternoon, as we stood outside a local snack shack sucking on cold cherry snow cones, she exclaimed, “What is that?”
I glanced at the crook of my left arm and stared at the mole I’d had ever since I could remember. It had changed over the course of my pregnancy; something was different.
“It’s nothing,” I quickly said and tried to change the subject.
“Are you kidding me? You need to go get it checked it out. Please.”
But I ignored her. Caring for my two month old and preparing for a move to another state simply took precedent in my mind. I had no time to see a doctor about my skin. After all, I thought, it is just a mole.
The weeks passed by in a blur as I packed and nursed and packed some more. The world seemed to revolve around by newborn and her care and our upcoming move. But there was a little voice in the back of my head about the mole. I knew that my sister was right and that something was wrong. The mole was black and oddly shaped. Anyone could see that it was “off.” But every time any worry seeped to the forefront of my mind I brushed it away like a nagging fly.
The move went as well as it could go, and we settled into our home in New York. My sister asked again when I planned to see a doctor about the mole, and I couldn’t ignore her any longer. Anxiety bubbled in my chest, and I found it hard to concentrate on anything beside that ugly mole. I finally made the decision to take action.
I was new to the area and had almost no friends, so I started calling dermatologists right out of the phone book. At least four different offices said that I was young—twenty-six—and healthy and that I probably didn’t need to be seen at all.
Just like that, without even an appointment, several professionals told me to stop worrying, it was no big deal.
But by now I knew it was indeed a big deal. A very big one.
Finally I reached an office that took me very seriously and scheduled an appointment immediately.
The dermatologist was kind and gentle and carefully removed the mole for testing. He didn’t act particularly worried or upset, and I took that as a good sign. But a couple of weeks later I found myself sitting in his office again waiting for my lab results. When I walked in alone he recommended that I bring my husband in from the waiting room to be with me when he revealed the news.
Alarm bells rang, loud and clear, in my head. Doctors don’t ask you to bring your spouse into the room if it is good news. They just say it, “Good news! Everything looks good!” When the news is bad, scary, or upsetting they know you need support.
So my husband came in with the baby in his arms and sat with me as the doctor delivered the diagnosis.
“You have malignant melanoma. The good news is that we caught it early. Your sister saved your life.”
His words made no sense to me. I remember him saying “probably not fatal” and “you don’t fit the profile.”
Probably not fatal? What the hell was going on here? I was twenty-six years old, with dark eyes and hair from a Mexican family. Sure I had light skin, but I had very few freckles and no family history of any cancer much less skin cancer.
Memories of years with little to no sunscreen as a kid in the pool under the California sun or as a college student on Virginia archaeological sites every hot, sunny southern summer came unbidden and filled me with guilt. What had I done? The doctor said it wasn’t my fault, and that this mole was one I’d had since birth and was likely always destined to become cancerous.
All there was to do now was move forward.
For two more weeks I walked around in a daze. I did no research, which, in retrospect, seems odd to me. I didn’t scour the internet or rush to the library. I didn’t want to know any statistics or learn about the different treatments.
I just wanted it to be over.
I scheduled an appointment to come back a couple of weeks later for surgery to completely remove the cancerous tissue. I was lucky in that the cancer was not very deep and I was able to avoid chemotherapy. My doctor and I opted for Mohs surgery, one of the most successful and common forms of skin cancer removal procedures.
I wrote the date down on my calendar: September 11, 2001.
That Tuesday morning was brilliantly sunny. I took the baby out for a morning walk along the Erie Canal which was just across the street from my house. It was about 8:30 when I buckled her into the stroller. No one else was out on the walking path despite the lovely weather. The only people I saw were two canal maintenance workers sitting in their truck listening to the radio. I couldn’t hear what they were listening to, but I could tell it was news or talk radio. They didn’t smile or wave when I raised my hand in a friendly greeting. Odd.
I got home a little after 9:00 or so to several panicked messages on the answering machine. My grandmother’s voice message told me to turn on the TV right away.
And there it was in full color: burning towers, crying TV reporters, smoke changing the gorgeous blue of that September sky to gray and black.
I had scheduled my surgery for early that afternoon.
The earth had shifted under my feet, but I had no choice but to right myself, gather my daughter in my arms, and do what I had to do to rid my body of its invader.
Everyone else had canceled their appointments for the day, and we were the only people in the office. The office staff was subdued and everyone looked as if at some point they had cried. I know I had. Everything was upside down and the world was a mess and my body was creating cells that were ready to eat me alive.
When it was all over I had sixteen metal staples across my inner left arm. It healed well, and the margins were clear of cancer, though I still have an ugly keloid scar to remind me of planes crashing into buildings, of blue skies turned dark, of lives changed forever.
I’m now fifteen years cancer free.
I often run my hand over my scar and think of that day, of my incredible luck, of my baby girl grown now to a teenager, one of those “after 9/11” babies who will never really know what the world was like before that day. I make her wear sunscreen, of course, and she doesn’t argue though I do catch her rolling her eyes as she slathers it on her perfect, healthy skin.