Two years ago in December, I was diagnosed with melanoma. To put it simply, it sucked and I wept at my desk when I got the news.
I’ve been a beauty editor, and a very pale-skinned one at that, for many many years and have long been a year-round obsessive sunscreen devotee—and someone who gets regular mole checks. (I’m also very freckly!) Though at the time I went in to see my new dermatologist in late 2011, it had been almost two years since my last check. I had moved back and forth from LA and my check-up got lost in the shuffle.
But I had noticed a spot on my chest I wanted the doc to check out. I didn’t think it was a melanoma, but I thought it could be a squamous cell carcinoma or something like that. As it turns out, it was nothing at all. But my wonderful and kind dermatologist did find a super dark (and pretty small) mole on my thigh—right next to a freckle I’d had my entire life—that he wanted to biopsy. He was in no way sure it was anything at all…but it was worth a scrape biopsy.
When the good doctor himself called a week or so later with the results, I knew it wasn’t good. He told me it was melanoma but that it was thin (that’s good because the deeper it goes into the skin, the more likely it could have spread). I cried and cried as a co-worker brought me tissues.
This is when everything became a much bigger situation to manage than I ever could have anticipated, even with my editorial knowledge. You see, you probably just think I’d go in, get the mole cut out at the doc’s office and be on my way…perhaps with a stitch or two. No can do with melanoma. I went back for a consultation with my derm and we talked about the two surgeons he recommended. I brought a friend with me in case I got too upset to ask the right questions or retain information.
Next up, a visit to the surgeon who happened to be a top melanoma guy at Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of the best cancer hospitals in the country. Dr. Coit and his team were amazing as they talked me through what would happen next and watched me fall apart a couple more times in their offices. You see, I’d lost a friend to melanoma 5 years earlier and it was all I could think about.
Luckily, my surgeon was also convinced we had caught this early but we still decided to test the lymph nodes in my groin and lower abdomen just to make sure no cancer cells had spread. Again this is no simple mole removal. I was under general anesthesia (though it is outpatient) and left the hospital with a deep 5-inch incision and stiches in my upper right thigh and two smaller ones in my groin and lower belly.
After a friend helped me home, I was fully house-bound for days and hopped up on pain meds. Going to the bathroom was a chore both because of my main incision and the fact that the nodes in the lower abdomen sit pretty deep so they had to cut through layers of muscle, etc., to get to them. Basically it was like having an appendectomy, pain-wise. And it was hard to sit up.
By the time my node results came back clear a week and a half later, I was back at work but still limping around. And I certainly wouldn’t be exercising anytime soon. But I was healthy and cancer-free…and I could have cared less about the 5-inch scar I would now always have on my leg.
I actually really love my legs. They’re my best asset. And they’re forever flawed with this big old scar and indentation in my thigh. Yeah, the other thing I didn’t really think about was how much tissue they’d have to take underneath the melanoma site as well. But you know what, after going through this surgery and sitting in a waiting room with people full on battling cancer in a way I so luckily didn’t have to, I am totally OK with it. I wear it like a badge of honor and have no problem wearing shorts and skirts just like I always did.
I know for sure that I’m a different person post-melanoma. I’m still a neurotic type-A New Yorker, but I try not to sweat the small stuff as much as I did. And I’m much more proactive about my health—and not just my quarterly derm visits. My dentist, eye doctor and gynecologist all have to do special checks on me now that I’m a melanoma survivor and I’ll never be late scheduling an appointment with one of them again. And I’ve felt the need to make my body stronger—the past two years I’ve been more rigorous and regular in my workouts than I’d been in ages. (Thanks SoulCycle!)
Mostly I’m just grateful. For everything that didn’t happen to me so that the rest of my life could.
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