In this blog post, we’re bringing you a cancer experience story written by Caroline, a member of our community who was diagnosed with a rare form of melanoma at the age of 29. She’s keen to raise awareness of skin cancer and share the impact that it has had on her life. As always, please share this blog post and let us know what you think!
I’ve been worried about developing skin cancer since I was 14 years old. I had been stocking up on my favourite fruit-scented toiletries from a certain well-known beauty retailer, and the shop assistant had slipped a leaflet on sun protection into my bag. I’m pale, red-haired, and freckled – and since reading that leaflet, my delicate skin has barely seen the sun. I cover my shoulders in summer, wear sunscreen in winter, and pride myself on staying as white as possible. So how did I get skin cancer?
I was diagnosed with mucosal melanoma, a rare form of skin cancer, in May 2017. I was 29 years old. Mucosal melanoma develops on mucosal tissue such as that in the nose, mouth, and sinuses, or in the gastrointestinal tract. In women, it can develop in the vagina, and on the vulva. In men, it may be found in the penis. I’m not going to tell you where my small tumour appeared – but suffice to say, you’re unlikely to see any of my surgical scars!
I spotted a suspicious growth in December 2016, but it took several months – and several
doctor’s visits – before I had a biopsy. It’s hard not to feel angry about weeks of missed diagnoses, but my disease is so rare that I can’t blame the doctors who dismissed my symptoms. However, I knew that something was wrong, and I’m glad I persevered with return visits until I finally had a diagnosis. I learned early on in my cancer journey that there is nothing more important than being your own advocate. Melanoma can spread quickly, and more than one medical professional has told me that if I had not kept returning to clinics, I might not be here now. It’s a sobering thought.
Initially, my treatment plan was the same as the treatment plan for cutaneous melanoma (the one with the moles): I had a surgical biopsy to determine the diagnosis, and then went back into surgery a few weeks later for a wide local excision and a sentinel node biopsy. The wide local excision involved taking a larger section of tissue from the area around the tumour to make sure that there were no more cancerous cells. For the sentinel node biopsy, two lymph nodes in my groin were removed and tested for melanoma cells. Thankfully, there was no melanoma in my lymph nodes – but if there had been, my diagnosis would have been changed from Stage II mucosal melanoma to Stage III, and I would have had advanced cancer.
Unfortunately, my wide local excision found some more melanoma cells in-situ (pre-cancerous cells, which have the potential to develop into cancer) – so a few weeks later, once I’d healed, I was wheeled back into surgery for a third operation. Then, once I’d healed from my third operation, I had a fourth. And then a fifth. Each surgery delivered the same result: a small area of amelanotic melanoma in-situ. ‘Amelanotic’ means that the melanoma isn’t pigmented. In fact, it’s invisible! In the space of eight months, I went from a healthy, active, young woman who had never even set foot in a hospital, to a cancer patient who had been through five surgeries in attempts to rid her body of a now-invisible aggressive cancer. I can scarcely believe it.
Wow, you look so well!
One of the most difficult aspects of my diagnosis has been looking well. Melanoma doesn’t respond well to chemotherapy, and it is not an option for me. When I first ‘came out’ about my cancer, I was asked a lot of questions about chemotherapy. When would I have it? When would I lose my hair? How could I have a serious illness, but look so healthy? And (the worst): did I actually have a serious illness? Despite all my rounds of surgery, and the trauma that comes with any cancer diagnosis, I began to feel as if my specific ‘flavour’ of cancer was being downplayed. If I mentioned melanoma, I felt as if I had to explain that I had always looked after my skin, and actually my diagnosis was not down to any irresponsible behaviour. As an aside: just wear your sunscreen! And no, I have no idea if that mole on your arm is dodgy…
Cancer messes with your head
Although I know deep down that my diagnosis is serious, it took me a long time to stop feeling like a cancer fraud. Not only do I look healthier than ‘the average cancer patient’ (fun fact: there’s no such thing!), but I can’t relate to many support group discussions about chemotherapy and radiotherapy side effects as I had never had that experience. Even if my cancer progresses, chemotherapy will be a last resort.
Through Shine, I’ve been able to meet others who have ‘just had surgery’ and can relate to some of the feelings I’ve described. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever meet someone who has the same diagnosis as me (if you have mucosal melanoma, please make yourself known!), but it is wonderful to be part of a community that acknowledges all the effects that a cancer diagnosis can have. I don’t have to explain or justify myself anymore!
I’ve only lived with cancer for a few months, yet the experience has already taught me a lot about myself. It matters less and less what other people think or believe about my illness. Instead, I focus on how I feel, and my own perceptions of my strengths and limitations. I’m finally giving myself the space to listen to my own needs – and that could be anything from needing to burn off some energy at the gym, to requiring a lazy day of nothing on the sofa.
It is so important to listen to yourself.