I have a long line of a scar on my left arm.
I have had it since November.
It is an interesting conversation piece, because it is so visible. I have found that there is a funny ‘scar community’ that exists. By this I mean that people see my scar, and randomly feel so inclined to show me their own scar. It is a funny thing, and it happens more often than you would think.
After having graduated from college in May, I was offered a position volunteering with Americorps in Oregon. Excited for the adventure, and opportunity to live in a new part of the county while doing service, I packed all of my things in my Honda Civic and drove across the country in late August. Two months later, the day after my twenty-second birthday, I had gone to the dermatologist to have a mole removed. It didn’t look too strange, definitely nothing as eye-catching as some of the examples they show you in magazines, but it had started to change a little bit, and I wanted to be cautious.
Three weeks later, I got a phone call. The mole was malignant, a form of spreading melanoma cells, and I would need to come in for surgery right away.
This is me, at twenty-two years old, three-thousand and eighty two miles away from home, being told that I have a very serious form of skin cancer. I remember what I was wearing, I remember where I sat down in the grass, I remember the brick that I felt in my stomach and I remember feeling like I had absolutely no idea what had just happened or what it meant.
I consider myself a relatively healthy person. I had just run a half-marathon the past spring. My best friends and I had trained for it all winter and I had kept up running afterwards. I do yoga regularly and I do my best to eat balanced, organic, healthy meals as often as I can. I don’t drink soda, drink a ton of water every day, sleep eight hours a night. Yet being a very pale Irish girl growing up in a predominantly Italian town, I was definitely sucked in to wanting to have a little color. I admit to not being incredibly wise or as cautious as I should be when it came to lying out in the sun in order to get even my weak Irish excuse of a tan. I was guilty of making a trip to a tanning salon before a dance or other big event. It is easy to dismiss the warnings when you are so far removed from truly thinking of the reality of it—and when everyone else is doing it (and often to an even greater extent), too.
Yet here I was, my health completely assaulted. I had been volunteering through Americorps for the past two months, enjoying living in a new place on the other side of the county, Mike and I had been exploring the Pacific Northwest as much as we could. And then that night he had to drive me to the airport for the red-eye flight back to New York. Not more than five hours after hearing the news and most definitely not coming to terms with it, I had been yanked out of my life, said goodbye to my boyfriend at the airport, and left, without knowing when (or if, really) I would be able to come back.
I had been referred to a wonderful doctor. He had just landed at the airport from a business trip the day I flew in and he personally called me on the phone right when he landed. They needed the slides of the cancer from the lab in Oregon, and so it was a waiting game until they came in. The good news was that he was confident they had caught it early, but waiting with the word cancer over your head is a frightful feeling. And truthfully, it hurt me more to see the hurt and concern that were so apparent in the faces of my family.
I had surgery to remove the surrounding skin tissue on my arm a few days later. My best friend flew in from Indiana to watch movies and eat ice cream with me. She was a trooper and re-bandaged my wound every day (my mom and I have always been of the ‘not so good with blood’ type). I skyped with Mike out in Oregon almost every night, and I cannot imagine what it felt like for him to be so far away, with so much unknown.
Extensive blood work and x-rays followed, to be sure that the cancer hadn’t spread elsewhere throughout my body. The whole thing was such a whirlwind I don’t think I had even processed the start of it yet.
Thankfully, everything came back clear. They had caught it early enough to be able to remove everything that had spread. And now this scar on my arm is still healing. It is an ever-present reminder of what happened in November, what it meant for my family and for the people I love. The whole time was a mark of my fragility. The apparent unknown of my life.
I tell this story not to be melodramatic—I by no means want to overdramaticize the whole thing. I am fully aware and thankful for how positive the situation turned out to be. There are so many people that do not catch it so early on and have a much more extensive and very serious experience than I did.
I tell it, however, because I have been feeling that I should write it down for some time now.
And it is a little therapeutic, I admit, in doing so to such an audience. There a lot of emotions surrounding the whole experience that I still don’t think I have fully worked through. It’s heavy.
The unexpected happens all the time. Healthy people get diagnosed with illnesses they now have to fight through. Natural disasters come and claim the lives of people who were only going about their day. We never know, really, how secure we are from anything.
And its not something that should make you live your life in fear, or to become negative about it all. It instead allows for perspective. Without trying to sound preachy, it has truly made me contemplate more: What am I doing with the life that I have been given? How can I be a positive effect on the people in my life? Am I focusing on the moment right before me? Is there something undone or unsaid that exists? It has allowed me to have a little more insight into the facts of life that I have found: that life is truly a gift, security is not a guarantee, everything is about people, what you value is reflected in how you spend your time, it is being in the moment right now that is important, and to be consciously grateful for everything.
This is my story, and I apologize if it was long-winded, or an over-share.
I am back in Oregon now, healthy, enjoying my time out here, and doing a lot of exploring this beautiful part of the county. I have been able to continue my year volunteering for an organization that seeks to educate and inspire youth to be positive change in their communities. I have to go to the doctor every three months as a precaution, but other than that I am only resting in the thankfulness for how it turned out.
Truthfully, I never thought I would ever tell it in this way. However, this month is National Skin Cancer Awareness month, and I felt that I should gain the momentum of raising awareness. I think that there is a lot of misunderstanding around skin cancer, I know that I was truly shocked to learn how many young people do get it. It is one thing to be healthy in so many areas of your life, but being aware of protecting yourself from the sun truly is much more than a standard infomercial. I share this with you because I think it is important for everyone to be aware of, to educate yourself and others, and to protect yourself. And after all that to simply live your life to the best of your ability, because of course, that’s all we can ever do.