Melanoma: A personal story

Guest post by Julie Pepper Lim, Marketing & Communications Coordinator at Meritage Medical Network.

May is Melanoma / Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month.

I’ll never forget how bright the sun was shining, laser-like on us, almost like a spotlight in a stage play, as my best friend and I walked down the Santa Monica sidewalk, on the day I noticed the big, brown, mole on her leg.

“What the #expletive is that?” I asked.

“I know,” she said. “It’s always been there, but not like that,” she said. “I have to get it checked out,” she said.

This began a two-year battle with Melanoma, that my best friend lost.

There are lots of skin cancers, but the deadliest is Melanoma. May is Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month.

After witnessing the biopsies and surgeries my friend had to undergo, the watchful waiting and hope that they had gotten it and it was gone, followed by the second tumor arising as if out of nowhere, malignant Melanoma, has a particularly haunting association for me. While we were trying to determine if this seemingly superficial cancer would in fact take her life, I noticed a strange erroneously shaped brown spot on my dad’s forearm.

“What is that?” I asked him (without the expletive this time).

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Uhm, it looks like Melanoma,” I said, not even trying to brace him for the possible implications.

“I’ll get it checked out,” he said.

Sure enough, it was Melanoma, but my dad was lucky and it hadn’t penetrated so deep that they couldn’t remove it, because that’s what Melanoma does. It grows like a tumor and what we see on the surface may go many millimeters beneath it, and then worse, it can spread to other parts of the body or metastasize. 

My best friend’s cancer metastasized in her brain. One minute she was driving her 1968 Forest Green Mustang, the next she was convulsing and crashing it into a pole and that was the beginning of her end. She was 22 when she first noticed it, and 24 when she passed. Melanoma moves more quickly in young people because they have faster metabolisms.

Stages of Melanoma

Melanoma is a form of skin cancer that arises when pigment-producing cells—known as melanocytes—mutate and become cancerous.

Melanomas can develop anywhere on the skin, but men are more likely to get them on the chest and back and women most commonly get them on their legs.

There are five stages of Melanoma from 0-4:

Stage 0: The outermost layer of skin is the only area affected and is known as melanoma in situ.

Stage 1: The cancer is up to 2 millimeters thick. It has not spread to the lymph nodes or other distant sites and it may or may not be ulcerated.

Stage 2: The tumor or lesion is at least 1.01 millimeters thick and it may be thicker than 4 millimeters. It may or may not be ulcerated and it has not yet spread to the lymph nodes or other sites.

Stage 3: The cancer has spread to one or more lymph nodes, but not to distant sites like the brain or lungs. The original lesion may not be visible and if it is, it may be thick than 4 millimeters and also may be ulcerated.

Stage 4: This is most likely, the final stage, where the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or organs such as the brain, lungs or liver.

How to fight against Melanoma

Even when the tumor is no longer visible and all signs of it seem to be gone, there can be microscopic growth and for that reason, chemotherapy is often recommended to kill any cells that can’t be seen and after that there is a period of watchful waiting. If the affected person makes it through five years without recurrence, their prognosis is good.

In many cases, if the malignant Melanoma is caught early it can be eradicated. Getting regular checks of your moles, skin tags, etc. at your dermatologist could save your life. There are many other kinds of skin cancer that aren’t as dangerous as Melanoma. In fact, Melanoma is less common than basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, which can be removed.  

The real key is detection and in many cases prevention. There is evidence that preventing sunburn can go a long way in preventing malignant Melanoma.

But as we moved through my friend’s diagnoses and treatment it seemed that the doctors were perplexed by how her cancer developed on her inner thigh, a place the sun would not have ease of accessing.  They asked about her diet and habits and worked hard to save her young life.

After the first surgery, she had a long line of stitches on her leg, where the cancer had been removed. The doctors had instructed her to stay off it and I guess because of the swelling, they asked if she had been staying off it when they were removing them.

She turned to me and said, “I told you we shouldn’t have gone roller skating!”

I played along, with “Well, how should I know?” as though disgusted.

The doctors nearly fell down, which made us both laugh. Laughing was good in light of what was ahead.

For the record, she was an excellent skater.

May is Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month. Get yourself checked, and if you ever see anything on the skin of someone you love that looks odd in shape, raised, or different than you remember it—mention it—it could help to save someone’s life.

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