"C" is for cancer. I don't know how many of you read my post in the Overcoming Adversity blogfest, but for those of you who didn't, I am a non-melanoma skin cancer survivor. I was diagnosed on 11/15/2011, and I had three surgeries for the condition on 1/23/2012, 2/8/2012, and 2/20/2012. If you haven't read my story, it's posted below. I am not afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed to share this with all of you. After all, my topics for this challenge are supposed to be personal, right? Furthermore, I believe that everyone can benifit from reading my story. I recently did a presentation for about 30 people on the dangers of tanning, and I sincerely hope that at least one person was impacted by what I had to say. Every person impacted is a life potentially saved.
It's important to know that my story is atypical. I did not get skin cancer from the sun- I am an avid believer that tanning is bad for you. I never thought it'd happen to me. However, the lesson here is that anything can happen, and please, don't tan.
“You have cancer”. When I heard that on November 15,2011, I was devastated, terrified, and shocked.
It all started on October 4th, 2011. I went to the dermatologist due to dandruff, and I also wanted to show her a weird bump on my scalp. It’d been there for five years (at least), and three pediatricians had identified it has a cyst, and there’d never been any cause for concern. However, I thought I might as well show the doctor. I was there, and I wanted it to be looked at.
When the doctor looked at it, she was concerned because it was red. “I’ll give you two choices”, she said. “ We can either take it off, or I can see you back in a few months to look at it again”. I thought for a second. I knew that if I were to get it taken off, it’d be really painful. On the other hand, I didn’t want to wait. What if it was something bad? In the end, I decided to get it taken off.
We made the appointment for November 14th, 2011. During that entire month, all I could do was wait and hope for the best. I have to admit that I was freaked out about the whole thing. I hate needles, and I knew that there’d be at least one going into my head, if not more. I only thought about that one aspect, not about the results. I automatically assumed that the results would show that the bump was just a harmless cyst. But I’d soon be proven wrong!
Before I knew it, November 14th came. My stomach felt like there were butterflies in it. Unfortunately, that anxiety didn’t get resolved right away. We had to wait an hour for the doctor to come. All I wanted to do was get the procedure over with and go home so that I could study for my science test. My mom asked me, “ Do you want me to see if she has another appointment open?”. I said no. All I wanted to do was get it over with!
It seemed as though hours passed before the doctor came in. When she finally did, I was terrified but relieved. This meant that the procedure was that much closer to being over! The biopsy was awful. Absolutely awful.I had to get shots of local anesthetic, which was the worst part. The doctor was terrible at giving injections. It was the worst pain I’d ever been in. However, after about fifteen minutes, it was over. I can honestly say that those 15 minutes were the worst part of this entire ordeal.
The next day, around 6:00, we got the phone call. My heart was racing- I had a feeling we’d get bad news. Why else would he have stayed on the phone for a half hour? Unfortunately, my suspicion of it being horrible news turned out to be correct. My dad said, “ It’s cancer. You’re going to have to have it removed again”. I started bawling uncontrollably.
There was, however, a good part to this story. I have been keeping in touch with my middle school english teacher for several years now. We’ve grown to have a special connection over the past few years. I finally made the decision to tell her about this whole surgery thing. I was reluctant to at first, but it ended up being the best decision I’d ever made. Part of the benefit having a friendship like this is that you have someone to go to for support. I sent the initial email telling her about it. I got a response the next day, and I was scared to open it at first. I guess I was worried about how she’d react. It isn’t everyday that someone tells you that they’re going to have surgery! However, when I did end up opening it, she did not overreact. She ended up helping me through this whole experience. I would have been worse off if I didn’t tell. You really don’t know until you try!
Anyway, more on that later. Getting back to me, the next few weeks were spent going to doctor after doctor. I suddenly realized that there was a very good chance that I’d 1. have to have multiple surgeries and 2. that there was a very good chance that I’d be put to sleep for at least one. I was terrified at the thought of being put to sleep. I’d never done it before, and my mom has had several bad reactions to it.
A few weeks later, I found out that I’d have to have an MRI of my brain to see how big the tumor was. The dermatologist wasn’t sure if she’d be comfortable doing the surgery because she thought that the tumor might be bigger than she thought.
The day before the MRI, I was an emotional wreck. I had never had this type of test before, and from what I’d heard from other people, it’s not pleasant!!
The day before the test, I went and saw my former teacher that I mentioned before. It turned out that that was the best thing. I told her about the MRI, and she said that,” I’ll be thinking of you all day tomorrow!”. That made me feel better.
So, the MRI was horrible. It took nearly two hours, and it was so loud that it sounded like a saw was going in my ear. I also had to have an injection of contrast, which is a dye to help the MRI pictures be easier to look at. That was the worst part. I was screaming the entire time.
Eventually, we decided to go to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for the surgery. They have doctors who specialize in this sort of thing. My main surgeon was really nice. He knew what he was doing, but he also had an awesome bedside manner. I should mention here that right before the surgery, I was tearing up. My plastic surgeon (more about him later) just stood there looking at me, but my main surgeon was patting me on the shoulder, trying to make me feel better, which it did. That just goes to show how much difference a small gesture can make! I’ll get back to that day in a bit.
I also had to have an initial surgery to remove the cancer itself. It hurt a lot, but I had a nice Dr. doing it. In total, the surgery took about 5 hours. I was awake for it, and the local anesthesia didn’t even hurt. I got used to it pretty quick. I was relieved when it was over, though. Being awake for a procedure is not fun!
For the next surgery, I would be asleep, and the doctors would close up the huge wound from the last surgery. Originally, the surgeons said that they were going to shave half my head for the surgery. However, after I broke down in tears at this news, they did a skin graft instead. It was very painful. Anyway, the plastic surgeon was pretty insensitive. He didn’t have a very good bedside manner. Oh well...
The day of surgery was very overwhelming. We did a lot of waiting that day, and the worst part was the i.v line. However, everyone was really nice. I remember going into the operating room, but that’s it. I wasn’t at all nauseous when I woke up, and I felt like a princess, with everyone there waiting on me!
The recovery has been awful. Initially, I missed five days of school, and couldn’t wash my hair for five days. It’s been 14 months now, and the skin graft still itches- a normal part of healing. I have ultrasounds every six months, and so far I’m cancer free!
I have learned a ton about friendship in these past several months. Some of my friends were not supportive, while others were. I was hesitant to tell people at first, as I was not sure how they’d react. But the one main lesson I’ve learned through all this is that, “ You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. In other words, if you don’t reach out for help, you’ll never get it. When you’re a teenage cancer patient, you need all the help you can get!
After this experience, I am doing everything I can to give back. I volunteer at Advocate Lutheran General Children’s Hospital every summer, and I am going to participate in American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life this summer. I know that even the smallest things make a big difference.