I'm going for it. You guys, this is me being completely transparent and raw, even if I do feel nervously-gutsy. Yes, I did just contradict myself because that's how it's been; I've been a jumbled mess of emotions over the last year. This post is visually graphic and not my typical blog post of showing my portraiture of beautiful people celebrating the most storied milestones of their lives. This is me, letting my guard down, to bring awareness to skin cancer and how it is a lot more common than you think.
In January of 2016 I had my sister and a close coworker point out a mole on my arm within a week from one another. Both women remarked how it looked different and that I should schedule a dermatology appointment. It's funny how you think you know your body so well, yet you might not see the slow changes that happen. I scheduled my dermatology appointment and got inspected from head to toe. Things were sliced off my body and sent off to the lab. Not even a week later, I got a call and was diagnosed with a stage I melanoma.
"Skin cancer" in my mind hadn't always sounded as scary say compared to "breast cancer," so when I was first told of my melanoma I was fairly calm about receiving the news. Yes, I knew that melanomas are the most dangerous and deadly of all skin cancers, but I was continually told that, "you're going to be just fine" and "you're extremely lucky because this was caught early!" With all that said, my dermatologist referred me to the UNC cancer center.
During my consultation with my surgeon he said that lymph nodes did not have to be removed nor would I have to go through chemo or radiation. Great. I've got this! He started to circle on my arm with his pen of what he guesstimated the skin that needed to be removed and then it hit me, this was going to be a large and visible scar. Tears began to fill my eyes and my voice cracked as I began to question the surgeon what exactly was this was going to look like? The doctors wouldn't know the shape or true size of what they needed to take until I was in surgery. It was all unknown. I walked away that day with a cancer support packet, an oval drawn on my arm, and overloaded with the different scenarios that could happen in surgery (skin graft vs skin flap, recovery time, possible nerve damage, and other things that I'm positive didn't stick with me.)
On March 15th, I was scheduled to have surgery at UNC, doctors wanted to be aggressive with clear margins because I was considered young to have a melanoma diagnosis. I can remember the day of the surgery feeling calm all while quietly bewildered by how many doctors and nurses surrounded me for the surgery prep. All of this for me? I thought you're only removing this smallish oval you drew on my arm, right? The doctors were still unsure of the shape of the scar, "it could be a square or moon shape" and they pulled on my arm skin judging different options. Luckily, a skin graft was looking more unlikely. An ultrasound with a nerve block in the shoulder later, my whole left arm was numb and ready as I headed to the OR.
Post surgery my arm was bundled up in a large bandage and I was blissfully unaware (a combination of the drugs and bandage)! I can remember pounding a Sunrise bacon egg and cheese biscuit in my mom's car on the way home while the next 24 hours was a blur of naps. My mom came over the next day to help me change the bandages and I remember being horrified sitting on my bathroom floor removing the layers of gauze for the first time. I sobbed uncontrollably into my mother's arms as I looked down at my newly shaped arm. It wasn't at all what I had prepared myself for and it all felt surreal. My skin was tightly pulled and in this odd square shape. Skin from the bottom of my arm was now resting on the top. It look like a patch. (I should have requested it to look like a shark bite...would have been way more cool looking! haha!)
It's taken time, and admittedly I'm still not always 100% comfortable exposing my arm to people or sharing the story for that matter. I love this quote from Marie Forleo and the book Little Bee by Chris Cleave, "Whatever your scars may be, know that they don't diminish you one bit. They don't make you less. They don't make you broken. They don't make you damaged goods. They make you beautiful. So let's make a pact, right now. Our scars are never ugly. Our scars mean we're alive."
I was never was the girl who tried to tan, and never EVER stepped foot in a tanning bed. I always wore sunscreen by the waterside and reapplied. Yes, I have blue eyes and reddish hair so I am more susceptible to skin cancers, but let me tell ya, sun damage is sneaky AF. The damage doesn't always have to take place at the beach or pool. It's the long commute you have in the car while the sun beats down your left side. It's the times that you've gone for a long run but aren't wearing SPF because it's overcast or, all the time you spend sitting at your desk with the light pouring in through the windows. It all bakes your skin.
Today, I received the official clearance from my surgeon that I am one year skin cancer free!!! I try to look at this more of a celebration of my scar and of its healing and of my own healing. A year later, the scar is still on the mend as I am having several rounds of reconstructive laser procedures to help with the coloration and shape of the scar.
The awesome (not to mention delicious) pie was made by Ali of East Durham Pie Company. Also, massive thanks to my buddy Mark Maya for taking some portraits celebrating my scar. Thanks Mark for helping me feel badass and beautiful!