I have fair skin, moles, and had a few (maybe more) bad sunburns as a kid, and a few more as an adult. I always wear sunscreen (at least a 30 spf), wear cover ups if the sun starts getting a little too strong, and keep a hat handy. Neither of my parents have had melanomas or suspicious moles. So, when my husband kept telling me something looked weird on my back I kind of shrugged it off. At my yearly visit, I had my GP do a quick check of my back and nothing alarmed her.
Then, a few months later, I had a mole on my back that started to itch. I knew that an itchy mole was something to pay attention to. My husband took a picture of it (it’s pretty hard to see your own back), and it was indeed a weird looking mole between my shoulder blade and spine. So, I did what most of us do in times of medical question; I turned to the internet.
I don’t always recommend turning to the interwebs to answer your medical questions. Sometimes it causes more fear than fact. However, in this instance, it was a good move for me. According to SkinCancer.org, you have to remember the ABCDE’s when looking at suspicious moles.
- A – Asymmetry - You want it to look the same on all sides. If you were to draw a line down the middle, it should look identical on each side. (My mole wasn’t. One side was all raised and weird, the other was flat.)
- B – Border - The edges of your moles should be clear and smooth, like an oval or circle. (My mole wasn’t exactly like an amoeba, but it certainly wasn’t smooth.)
- C – Color - A mole should be the same color all over. Areas that are darker or lighter are abnormal. (My mole was weird, white and brown.)
- D – Diameter - Most melanomas are larger than the tip of a pencil eraser, though some very early melanomas can actually be smaller. (My mole was about the size of a pencil eraser.)
- E – Evolving - Moles shouldn’t really change. Any change in the size, shape, or color of a mole warrant a medical opinion. Itchiness, bleeding, or other major changes, are definite cause for concern. (My mole itched like a bug bite and had gone from maybe strange to WHOA in about 3 months.)
After I saw that list, and realized I fit pretty much every letter, I knew I had to go see the real deal dermatologist. I set an appointment and headed in.
During my very first visit, the doctor did a quick body check, examined the mole on my back, and informed me she would be removing that one and an additional “suspicious” spot on my low back. Apparently there was a very small, but VERY dark mole I hadn’t even noticed. The moles needed to be sent off and biopsied to check for melanoma. I laid down, they injected numbing agents into each spot, removed the moles, and stitched me up. I had one stitch on the “punch” removal on my lower back, and 2 stitches on the removal of the one I was worried about. In about 20 minutes, I was in, out, and on my way home. Let me tell you, I was NOT prepared for all of that. Everyone was super friendly, informative, and clearly efficient. It was a blur! It happened so fast, I didn’t even know what to think.
A week later, the office called with the results. I was pretty convinced I would get the “all clear” but that was not the case. The nurse started with the news I expected. The spot from my lower back was “spindle cells” and everything abnormal had been removed. Sweet. Easy peasy. Done. Then she moved on.
The other itchy spot was a very early melanoma. She went on to talk about “situ” and the procedure for removing 5mm of healthy tissue from all around the spot, and how I needed to schedule this as soon as possible. So, sitting in the carpool line, I set up an appointment, tried to process what was going on, and tried to not look completely weirded out.
I worked hard to not freak out about hearing I had melanoma. There was officially a cancer on my body. WHAT?!? I got home, and once again, hit the internet. After a few minutes of looking up kind of not crazy things (how bad is melanoma, how likely is it I will have more, am I at a higher risk for any other type of cancer), I called the doctor back with a few questions. The more questions I asked, the more I realized I shouldn’t freak out about this particular melanoma. This one was in SUCH an early stage, there were no medical concerns. Yes, it was a little scary. But, I would have a section of skin cut out, and it would be just fine. This was actually NOT a big deal.
Another week passed and I headed in for my “procedure.” I walked in prepared for something super quick and easy. I thought it would be just slightly more difficult and painful than the 2 stitches from the last visit. I planned to go back to work teaching preschool the next day with a just a few activity restrictions in place. I was wrong.
The doctor came in and spoke with me, then measured around where the melanoma had been. To perform this particular surgery (yes this was actually considered a small surgery), the doctor would remove at least 5 mm of healthy tissue surrounding the original melanoma, through the top layers of skin to the fat, ensuring that there were no cancerous cells left in the area. Then, the nurse asked me where I would like my prescription for pain medication sent. That is when I started to realize this was going to be a little tougher than I thought. I asked about work the next day and she quickly said, “Oh no, you’re not going to want to be going anywhere tomorrow.”
The nurse had me lie down and she started numbing me up. She kept going, and going. Thank goodness for modern medicine and numbing agents! Once I was all numb, the doctor came back and got to work. I asked a lot of questions throughout the procedure. I didn’t feel a thing. (Again, thank goodness for medicine.) The only hard part was when I saw the actual piece of tissue put on the tray. Another little (or not so little) thing I was not really prepared for, but I’m a person who likes that kind of stuff so I didn’t really mind.
The doctor finished sewing me up and I asked for a stitch count. There were 5 stitches under the skin that would be absorbed and 20 closing the incision at the surface.
The nurse bandaged me up with extra padding to protect the area, and I was on my way. I was to do no heavy lifting or exercising until the stitches were removed. They let me know I would probably want my pain medicine when the numbness wore off and to expect in an hour or so. I felt pretty good. I even sent a proof of life selfie to my best friend.
Three hours later, I was still numb and feeling good. Four hours later, that all changed. It hurt way more than I thought it would. I don’t know what it is like for other people, but I think my body was just angry. The pain meds took the edge off, but the good news is I only needed them the first night. After a few days, the pain was all but gone. I had lots of help cleaning and dressing the incision and followed every direction from the doctor. Two weeks later I went in and had all of the stitches removed. All of my activity restrictions were lifted, and viola! No more melanoma. Sure I’ll have a scar on my back (click here if you really want to see it) but who cares?!? I’m so thankful for that scar and what it means ISN’T there. I’m so thankful for the doctors that took care of it all, for the husband who snapped the original picture, and again, that nurse who numbed me up.
Since I now have a history of melanoma, I will go in for skin checks every 3 months for awhile. Eventually I’ll be back to the normally recommended once a year. In fact, that’s actually the moral of my story. Have your moles checked out. Go regularly to the dermatologist and before something is really suspicious. If something IS suspicious, don’t put it off and wait too long. When the doctors can get it taken care of early, you really don’t need to freak out about melanoma.
I am not a medical professional. I am just sharing a story of my own experience with melanoma. All questions and concerns should always be discussed with your own doctor.