Out of body experience

The past week can best be described as an out-of-body-experience as I told family and close friends of my diagnosis – still not knowing the stage nor prognosis. The word metastatic hung in the air like a nuclear cloud, ready to swallow my life. Physically, I felt fine. Emotionally, mentally, I was struggling to figure out how to process this disease and its scary implications. It was exhausting.

A friend of mine gave me a comfort cross, carved out of olive wood from Jerusalem and blessed by a priest. She had several to pick from since one was for my daughter and the other for one of my sons (the two in our family she thought would use it the most). Looking at the crosses, the beautiful wood grain on one caught my attention; however upon turning it over the other side showed a dark, less attractive pattern. I set it aside and looked at the others but kept coming back to that first cross until I realized it was me with melanoma. On the outside I looked pleasant enough, but on the inside lay a dark, ugly war marking its turf. That night, two nights after hearing my diagnosis, I held the cross on my chest as I slept.

The visit with the oncologist gave a glimmer of hope, yet, I hesitated to hold onto that hope too tightly for fear that bubble would burst. The rest of my week was filled with exams and scans – dermatologist, MRI of my head, and a PET scan all to determine the source of the melanoma and how much it had spread.

As the dermatologist examined every inch of skin, every mole, spot or lesion, she searched for what I have always anticipated after my extensive sun exposure as a teen working on our family farm. I never sun-bathed, but spent endless hours on tractors, baking in the sun before sunblock came into vogue and cancer was just a constellation in the evening sky. After one especially bad burn, I knew my fate had been sealed and have watched marks on my back religiously, waiting for the inevitable. Never though would I have expected it to sneak in through some hidden passageway and attack from the inside as the most dangerous of skin cancers. While I was watching for basal or squamous cell cancer, I never anticipated melanoma, which is the cause of most skin cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. (I finally became brave enough to do some research.)

Each day marked one more set of tests and one less day of waiting for results, yet time seemed to drag¬†interminably. When the oncologist, Dr. Hake, called, I took a deep breath – expecting the worst, hoping for the best. His words, “I have good news,” made my heart leap. Going through the results of each test and scan, the news was the best I could expect. The melanoma seemed to be contained in the one node under my right arm. I pumped my fist and tried to keep my feet on the ground.

Tears came with every family member I hugged as I shared the news. Emotion bottled up all week, held back by jokes and denial, rushed over me, flooding out in sobs of relief. Yes, I still faced surgery, but the thought of the melanoma seeping to my brain, intestines or anywhere else it wanted to latch on, diminished and I knew I had a significant chance to defeat this beastly disease.

I know I can never be 100-percent certain it will never come back. I know it will be part of me for the rest of my life. I know I will always watch with diligence, but the fear that smothered me with the word “metastatic” has faded and thoughts of watching my grandchildren grow up blossomed again in my mind.

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The battle begins

The first time I found the lump in my right armpit I broke down crying out of fear. Then the tough farm girl busted through and I rationalized it was probably a swollen lymph node. I felt fine. I have always been as healthy as a horse – or two. I waited, pushing off getting it checked out since never in my life have i been quick to admit illness. This time was no different.

I told no one, not wanting to cause worry. I asked my daughter, the soon to be nurse practitioner, how you could tell if something was a swollen lymph node or something needing attention. “You should probably get that checked out,” she told me.

I let life and my schedule postpone getting it checked out. By the time I did, a month had passed. As I sat through the biopsy, I looked around wondering if this was the moment that would change my life. It did.

When Amy Zahn, nurse practitioner, called and said they were all surprised by the results, I knew it wasn’t good. Then I heard melanoma. I asked her to repeat it to make sure I got it right (I am a reporter after all). Metastatic melanoma – it was spreading. As I sit and write this, I don’t know the extent nor the prognosis. All I know is I sense it might have spread more than I want to admit but I also know I am strong and healthy up to this point. And I know that whatever course I will be taking I have to face with courage and grace. I have been given this cross to bear for a reason. Mine is not to question why but to forge forward with whatever the journey may bring.

Right now I’m too scared to do any searches to learn more. It’s too new, too fresh, too raw for exploring right now, although I’m sure others around me have done so. I’ll wait and take it one step at a time as I do everything in life.