Heavy. I can not move. My right leg is eager, willing to handle the weight of my body, but it resents having to do so. Sure, it is a part of a team, but for an entire year, it has had to carry the left. It is tired, worn out, disproportioned. Not as disproportioned as her sister, for she is disfigured in a different way.
Cancer has a way of taking something away from you. Your hair, your life, your dreams, your mobility – and sometimes it takes away your lymph nodes, those tiny nodules that you never think about until they are stripped from the confines of your body. Though there are many, removing just two can disrupt the entire system, creating heaviness, burning, and a sense of fullness from deep inside. Some days I don’t want to get out of bed, despite my doctors assuring me that the pain I feel when my foot hits the ground is good for me; it is worth it, they say, walking is medicinal.
My toes, now fat little sausages, burn from the inside out as thick fluid builds up begging for a place to escape. I wish I could drill a hole in them to relieve the pressure and drain the pain. I wish I could feel my skin, but it is blanketed with a layer of scar tissue that has left a scaly, lifeless indention. I used to have cute feet. The bubblegum toe polish is just a façade.
I am told to breathe – that deep breathing helps move trapped lymph fluid. I have to admit, I don’t do it. Seems like a bunch of bullshit to me – breathing can’t possibly relieve the constant pressure and pain I feel in my lower extremity. And it certainly can’t take away the disfigurement; the crater that stage IV melanoma so cruelly left behind. But today I tried. Today I took deep breaths. I concentrated on my fat toes. I visualized my reddish-purple foot and ankle releasing the evil toxins that hold them captive. I imagined the crater closing up and the thick juice turning into a flowing river of necessity. My thigh welcomed the prodigal solution – it had been waiting for its return. The system had been restored, if only for a while. It will take repetition; a concentrated effort of self-love to reunite, but the time invested is worth it. Breathe my sweet sister; you are alive. Breathe, my love, for you have been healed. You are a survivor. Just breathe.
“I’m too old for this,” I said to myself as I added more acne cream to my nose. The stubborn red blemish that took center stage on my face showed no sign of ever leaving, despite the plethora of facial scrubs, creams, ointments, and acne treatments I tried. I was becoming quite frustrated; the unwelcomed nuisance had been there for months – it interfered with my vanity – I wanted it gone.
Little did I know, it had to be there. It had to grab my attention, for without it, I may not be here today.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s – a time where kids spent hours playing outside. I don’t recall lathering up with sunscreen before heading out the door though, despite my blonde hair and pale skin. It just wasn’t something people did back then. I burned a lot as a kid. As a teenager, I spent the weekends laying on a towel in the backyard, slapping gobs of baby oil on my arms and legs in an effort to tone down my pasty white skin. The oil was supposed to attract the sun so you could tan faster. It attracted the sun all right, but I never tanned – I burned. Same outcome in my twenties and thirties when I traded bottles of baby oil and natural sunlight for bronzers and tanning beds. I was caught in a vicious cycle: lather, burn, repeat.
I figured the spot on my nose just needed a strong, acne prescription from Dr. Neuenschwander, a local dermatologist in town. In a matter of days, I thought, it would be gone, and I would go about my business, never to think of it again. Boy, was I wrong. I am reminded of it every day.
“That isn’t a pimple,” Dr. Neuenschwander told me as he inspected my face with a dermatoscope. “It is a broken capillary. It won’t go away with medicine, but you can have it removed with laser treatment if you would like.”
Darn. Not the quick fix I hoped for, but an easy fix, nevertheless. As I stood up and thanked him for the diagnosis, Dr. Neuenschwander suggested he do a full body skin scan. He could tell I had sun damage and wanted to look to ensure there were no other weird spots. I was happy to oblige; I was there anyways, might as well get my money’s worth.
The blackish-blue spot on my left shin had been there for years, I told him when he inquired. In fact, I had it looked at a few years ago during a routine exam and was told to simply watch it for changes. It never changed, so I dismissed it. The look of concern on Dr. Neuenschwander’s face alarmed me. When he insisted on doing a biopsy, a slight rush of fear entered my body. When the biopsy report came back two days later, I dropped to my knees.
“Superficial spreading malignant melanoma, Stage III/IV”, that is what the pathology report said. The blackish-blue spot on my shin had been classified as the most dangerous and deadly type of skin cancer. On the surface, the spot had not changed or grown, however, it had penetrated deeply into my skin and was branching out. I was at risk of the melanoma invading my internal organs if it had not already.
To say I was shocked at the diagnosis is an understatement. In a matter of days, I went from being a healthy woman with plans and aspirations, to becoming Dr. Elliot Asare’s newest cancer patient at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Dr. Asare is a surgical oncologist who specializes in melanoma.
The first two surgeries were quite invasive. To ensure no cancer cells remained, Dr. Asare had to take an exceptionally large chunk out of my shin. To determine if the melanoma spread, he also had to perform a sentinel lymph node biopsy. In ten business days, he informed us, we would know whether the cancer had spread. We would discuss treatment then, if necessary. In the meantime, he ordered me to remain immobile and heal; I would undergo reconstructive surgery and a skin graft to put my leg back together in five weeks.
Ten days. It felt like 10 years. The emotional pain of not knowing my fate was worse than the physical pain I was forced to endure. I worried. I prayed. I cried. I even begged. Once I exhausted myself, I finally trusted. I remembered my faith and recalled all the answered prayers of my past. Suddenly, my thoughts circled back to that annoying red spot on my nose. Had it been strategically placed to where I could not miss it? Would I have seen the dermatologist if it had not been there? How long would I have gone without knowing I had melanoma? Could it be the red spot was a blessing and not a curse?
I got the call on the tenth day. By then, I had Huntsman’s phone number memorized, so when the number popped up on my phone, my heart pounded wildly. This was it. This was the call I waited for. I had come to a place of acceptance; no matter what, I would put it in God’s hands.
“Mrs. Cumins, this is Dr. Asare’s office. We received the results of your lymph node biopsy. The results came back benign. We have no reason to believe the melanoma spread. You are incredibly lucky; it was caught early.”
For the second time in two months, I dropped to my knees. I managed to thank the nurse and confirm my next set of appointments before disconnecting the call and bursting into tears. This time, my tears came from a place of gratitude, not fear.
Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States every fourth Thursday in November. It is a day to which we give thanks and count our blessings. Though it was a difficult and challenging time, I learned valuable lessons in trust, gratitude, and humility. I am thankful for that unsightly red spot on my nose. To me, it symbolizes mercy; I have no plans to remove it.
What are you thankful for this year? Share in the comments or hop on over to the Forum and tell us about it! Happy Thanksgiving my friends!