My Skin Cancer Experience

This has always been a blog primarily about my paintings, and less so about me. In fact, I'm generally reluctant to talk about my personal life here. However, over the past few months I've had an experience that I think is important to share, mostly because I feel it can help others.

I have a number of atypical moles on my body, and so for the last decade I've followed my physician's advice to have regular dermatology screenings. These were always routine appointments where the dermatologist looked me over, advised me to stay out of the sun, and then told me that everything was just fine. It usually felt like an annoying inconvenience. Since there was never a problem, I'd often thought about just skipping them altogether.

It's a good thing I didn't.

During an appointment in December, my dermatologist got visibly uncomfortable about one of the moles and asked if she could take a picture of it. She said it should come off within the next few weeks, which did not give me a warm, safe feeling. It was removed after Christmas.

She called a week later with the pathology results; melanoma, the most serious skin cancer. As you can imagine, it felt like the floor opened up beneath me, and I was falling into a deep pit.

Melanoma is a particularly aggressive form of skin cancer, and results in the largest number of skin cancer deaths. If not caught early enough, there are few treatment options available, and long-term survival is quite low. If there is any good news about melanoma, it's that it's completely treatable if caught early. That did seem to be the case with me, although there was still a small, but not negligible, chance that it had spread; about 3% to 15% , depending on the sources (though my doctors assured me that my odds were probably on the better end of that spectrum). The only way to know for sure would be to have surgery to remove an area of skin around the original tumor, as well as several of the nearest lymph nodes.

I had that surgery on January 28, and received the pathology results this past Friday. All the samples were clean; there was no sign of the cancer having spread. I should be fine. As my dermatologist told me when she gave me the initial diagnosis, I have a far greater likelihood of dying from something other than melanoma. It's an odd sort of comfort, but I'll take it.

I'm fortunate that I live in Boston and have access to some of the best medical care in the world. My dermatologist and surgeon are both wonderfully skillful and compassionate doctors, and I felt extremely well cared for. I'm not sure how they'd feel about me using their names here, so I'll just thank them anonymously, but from the very bottom of my heart.

Externally, the only things that will change about my life are that I now have several scars on my leg (still healing), and I'm paying very close attention to my health - in particular nutrition. For the next several years, I'll be seeing my dermatologist every three months for follow-ups, and I'll be viewing those as anything but routine.

Internally I'd say that more has changed. It was a full month from having the initial diagnosis to at last learning that everything was fine. During that time, I was living with the small but very real possibility that everything would not be fine, and I was compelled to look at things in a new light. Life is fragile, precious, and happens right now, in this moment, not in the stories I'm rehashing about 5 years ago or my plans for 5 years from now. I've always known this in my head, but now I feel it in my bones.

I'm grateful to have been handed this lesson, and to be able to walk away with it, relatively unscathed.

Now I've come to the real point of this story: If you or any of your loved ones have an unusual mole, particularly one that has changed in any way, please have a medical professional look at it at once. It could quite literally save your life.

Nothing - NOTHING - would make me happier than to hear that somebody read this article and because of it at some point got an early diagnosis and full treatment for their skin cancer.

There's no substitute for the good eyes of a doctor, but there are also many resources available online. Here are a few of them:
www.cancer.gov
www.skincancer.org
www.melanoma.com/
Although I've become most familiar with melanoma resources, I wanted to include a resource for non-melanoma skin cancers as well:
www.medicinenet.com

One more thing: I've been in touch with an artist friend of mine who has had similar experiences, and we've had an initial discussion about ways we can use our artwork to raise awareness and funds, perhaps through a virtual auction, or in some other way. As we work out the details, I'll of course be blogging about it.

So, I have every reasonable hope of painting for many years to come, and sharing the work with you right here. I'll be taking good care of myself, enjoying my life in the moment, and hope you all do the same.

Best wishes,
Jeff