A couple months ago, after returning from a vacation in Puerto Rico, I noticed a little mole on my left ankle. I didn’t even realize it was a mole at first, because I don’t really have any others—I thought it was a shaving cut. But when it didn’t go away after a week or so, I took a closer look and realized it was a mole that was different colors and had irregular edges. I made an appointment at a schmancy dermatology clinic that a friend had recommended. From the well-dressed peeps in the waiting room and displays of spendy products on hand, it seemed like most of the “patients” were there for Botox. I found myself oddly comforted by the surrounding superficiality. Like my problem couldn’t be too serious if everyone around me was just waiting to get botulism injected into their faces.
I showed a pretty young doctor my mole. I had talked myself into believing that she’d say I was being silly. She didn’t. She said it looked suspicious and had to be biopsied. She shaved it off, scanned my body for other suspicious moles (none), told me my bra was too tight(!), and that I’d get results of the biopsy in ten days to two weeks.
Almost three weeks later, I got a call from a nurse at the clinic, saying I had to come in to discuss the results of the biopsy. I nervously laughed, “That doesn’t sound good.”
All business, the nurse asked if I could come in that same day. Everyone knows that when you need to come in to “discuss” your results, it’s bad. That same day? Very bad. I started shaking, crying, and was positive I was about to vomit. Even in that state, I changed into a nice outfit. Not out of any vanity, but because how could I have cancer if I was wearing my cute J. Crew denim pencil skirt?
My original doctor was out on vacation, so I met with a peppy fill-in doc. He sat me down and told me I have melanoma. He said that while yes, melanoma is the worst of all the different skin cancers (there are three types), he informed me that it is also highly treatable and it looked to be stage one or zero.
I asked if it was true that of all the cancers, melanoma was the most deadly. He said no, that was breast cancer. Oh. So it’s the second biggest killer. Gulp. Even with that news, he was unstintingly optimistic. I unsuccessfully tried to absorb a little of that optimism. He told me that they’d already made an appointment for me to see an oncologist—a cancer specialist—the following week.
A few days later, my original doctor called to check on me. Her take on my biopsy results were different than her cheerful colleague’s. While she was optimistic, she shared that they didn’t actually know what stage my cancer was at. (Cancer goes from stage zero to four, with four being the most advanced.) So I won’t know if I just need a simple surgery followed by quarterly skin scans, or something more involved until after I see the surgeon.
All I know for certain is that I have melanoma. Me, the girl who doesn’t leave the house without sunscreen of at least SPF 70. The woman who has a collection of sun hats and always walks in the shade. The ex-goth who spent most of her beach vacation swaddled in a muumuu, under an umbrella, wearing gallons of sunscreen and the biggest sunglasses she could find. I have melanoma.
Because I’ve been very open about my diagnosis—I even Twittered it, because the idea of announcing you have cancer via Twitter cracked me up—I’ve fielded a lot of concerned phone calls and emails. During this trying time, I was reminded of how people dealt with my mom when she had cancer. So in the interest of being service-y, I’ve written a list of tips for dealing with someone who’s caught the Big C (or any other life-threatening illness):
- Don’t dismiss my fears. My mom died of cancer when she was just 54, an uncle bought the farm at 40, and the rest of my family tree hasn’t fared much better. If I weren’t scared, I’d be stupid. This is cancer, not a stomach flu.
- Don’t insist I’ll be fine. Believe me, nobody hopes I’ll be OK more than I do. But unless you’re my doctor (and even they don’t know yet), you can’t guarantee that. It’s just irritating to hear, completely invalidates my feelings, and tells me you don’t want to hear what I’m saying.
- If you have to panic, don’t do it around me. I was panic-stricken most of the time my mom was in the hospital and it bugged the crap out of her. Now I know how annoying I was. If you have to freak out, call a cancer-free friend or scream into a pillow.
- If I have to go into the hospital, you’d better visit me. And bring presents! And flowers! My mom’s brother didn’t visit the entire time she was sick. Now my aunt (his other sister) is in a wheelchair, so he won’t visit her because he “doesn’t want to see her that way.” I hope he still feels guilty over not getting to say goodbye to my mom, but I wouldn’t know since I haven’t spoken to him since my mom’s funeral. Nobody likes hospitals—least of all the person who has to stay there. So nut up and get over there.
- Cancers come in all sizes. While hearing about Aunt Edna’s golf-ball-sized tumor, which was removed and now she’s fine, is great, don’t automatically assume this means I’ll be OK. Yes, I like hearing stories of people who lived through similar experiences, but I’m still worried. On the flip side, please don’t tell me about people who had melanoma and died. Because if you do that, I will punch you.
- Let me talk about scary stuff. I know I’m being self-absorbed, but this is a lot for me to handle. I have actually walked around my house—alone—repeating aloud, “I have cancer.” The more I talk about it, the easier it is for me to accept. I know that it’s hard to hear, but you’d be doing me a favor if you didn’t immediately change the subject every time it came up. Because you know how new parents talk about their babies 24/7? Think of cancer as my new, repulsive, unwanted little baby. It’s all I can think about. And while you’re going to hear about it a lot, on the upside, at least I won’t ask you to hold it.
- Don’t expect any bravery out of this lady. When I volunteered as an AIDS buddy, I had this idea that I’d get someone like Harvey Fierstein, only dying—a charming gay gentleman, facing death with dignity, intelligence and humor. Instead I got a despicable crackhead who informed me that he’d willfully infected scores of clients because “f**gots just want to f**k and get AIDS.” Charming. In the next breath, he showed me a card from his mom who advised him that if he found God, he’d be cured, and then asked me to pray with him. Even if I believed it would’ve helped him, I would’ve passed. (I did call the chaplain because I’m not completely heartless.) Though I’m not a dirtbag like that guy, I’m sure if I get as sick as he was, I’ll be just as scared, because I’m pretty terrified now and I feel fine.
- Don’t give me unsolicited advice. I realize this is rich coming from someone who’s actually written a list of tips you didn’t ask for, but I’m talking more about the type of input that involves drinking wheatgrass, having a positive attitude, doing a “cleanse,” or going to church. In my own dark little way, I am being positive, but there’s no way in hell I’m sticking a tube up my butt or drinking wheatgrass.