"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter." ~e e cummings

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

that time I thought I had skin cancer...

I was sitting on the couch working on a blog post last Thursday night when I twisted my wrist in such a way that I caught a glimpse of a tiny, shiny, black speck on my right forearm.  TICK! I thought, as I had been working out in the yard, pulling weeds and vines out of the back of our property, earlier that week. I immediately, obviously, started scratching at it. But it was smooth...not like a scab as I had been expecting.

And so, my mind instantly went to dark and scary places. Melanoma.

I wasn't being a hypochondriac. Not this time, anyway.

My sister was diagnosed with malignant melanoma about seven years ago. She had a tiny, shiny, black speck on her leg. It didn't really bother her, although, in hindsight, she realizes that it had become itchy. But it didn't raise any red flags for her...but it did for her masseuse. She was getting a massage as part of a pre-let's-have-another-baby getaway with her husband. The masseuse noticed it immediately and told her that she should get it checked out, and so she did. She received the results of the biopsy shortly after her general practitioner did a punch biopsy on it...malignant melanoma. For those of you unfamiliar with skin cancers, it's the worst-case-scenario skin cancer diagnosis. It's the type of skin cancer that can spread to other parts of your body and can do so quickly. Over the next few days, more tests revealed that she had, thankfully, caught it early, and the cancer was "in situ," or, confined to the top layers of her skin...it hadn't spread. Another test revealed that she was pregnant.

Apparently, my little niece-to-be gave her VIP status among patients awaiting in situ melanoma surgery and her procedure was scheduled very quickly. An oncologist was able to remove it and a clear margin of skin around it. Aside from now having regular dermatology screenings and wearing sunscreen on a daily basis, she has had no recurring effects of the cancer and has had  no other abnormal skin growths.

But she, and our whole family, are forever more aware of our fair, Irish skin and the markings that come with the sun and with age and with pregnancy.

So this tiny, shiny, not-a-tick, black dot? It had me worried.

So worried that I kept scratching at it and picking at it until nothing was left of that smaller-than-a-lentil sized piece of skin but a tiny, raw abrasion. Finally, Sam convinced me to Leave It Alone and call a doctor. I did.

Friday afternoon, I went to see my GP. This was the first time I'd seen him as I'm not really one to "go to a doctor" unless I'm "having a baby." He looked at my....scab...and I described what I had originally seen, and he seemed puzzled. "I'm not concerned," he said, "Only your family history has me wanting you to get this examined by a dermatologist. Without a history, I'd suggest we just watch it for awhile." I was disappointed and I told him. I just wanted a punch biopsy. I just wanted it OUT of my skin. My overactive mind was already picturing tiny, angry cancer cells running amok through my arm. Is my arm tingling? I'm pretty sure it is. That's the cancer, right? It's spreading!  I have been really tired lately! It's my body fighting! Ohmygod! I think my head hurts! BRAIN TUMOR! OHMYGOD!

I've said it before: My mind is not a pretty place to be.

He didn't want to do a punch biopsy, said he'd rather let the dermatologist see the entire area. Besides, they'd be able to do it without leaving a scar. I practically insisted, promising that I didn't care about a scar. He said he'd call first thing Monday morning and get me in to see the doctor quickly.

The original appointment was set for November 24. I don't know about you, but I was pretty sure I couldn't wait SIX WEEKS to find out if I had cancer or not. I called back. I Insisted.

I got an appointment the very next day.

Which was today.

The doctor walked in and I immediately decided I didn't like him.

He, in his 70s, with his "Let's let ol' Dr. G take a look atcha, sweetheart," and hurried manner. He listened, barely, as I described what I had seen and reminded him of my family history. He looked at the area with his fancy little flashlight. He went ahead and did a full spot check on my arms, torso, and scalp. He finished his exam (talking all the while about god knows what...not my skin or my worries) and said, "Well, nothing that I've seen today is of any concern to me. I don't want to see you in my office again for another six years!" At which point, his medical student (who had, by the way, listened intently with both concern and compassion to my story) interjected, "But of course come in sooner if you have ANY other concerns!"

What? That's it? But where's my answer? WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT ON MY ARM?!

I demanded to know. Well, really, I meekly said, as he backed up out of the room, hand on the door knob, "So what was this?"

"Hard to say! Maybe black spot poison ivy? Hard to tell since you went and scratched it out all by yourself!"

Black spot poison ivy?

Time to Google.

I did.

Self diagnosis? Black spot poison ivy.

It's a rare form of poison ivy that usually presents the first time a person is exposed to the plant. I think I've been exposed before (surely I have been...growing up, we all spent all summer traipsing through the creek in our backyard...my siblings all came home with it numerous times...) but I don't remember ever reacting to it. It usually presents after having prolonged exposure to highly concentrated amounts of the sap...from either the roots or crushed leaves (makes sense....I'd been pulling vines by the root and I know there's poison ivy in the area...). About 24-72 hours after exposure (the timeline fits...pulling weeds early in the week, noticed the spot Thursday), the sap, which you cannot remove with soap and water, takes on a dark black, lacquer-like appearance. It appears to be part of the skin itself (smooth to the touch) but is only surface deep (which is why I was able to "dig" it out).

Treatment? Wait it out. Use calamine lotion for persistent itching.

Thanks, WebMD, for setting my mind at ease more than that doctor did today.

Lesson Learned:
Next time I think I have skin cancer, I won't try to remove the "melanoma" myself. I'll leave it in for the doctor to see. And, despite what the doc suggested, I don't think I'll wait a whole six years before getting another skin check. I think it's a pretty good idea for everyone to schedule a yearly or every-other-yearly check. Can't hurt. And, once again, I'll try to practice the art of Worrying Less and not letting my mind get away from me.

I'm a work in progress.

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