Dear Prevent Cancer:

I was diagnosed with melanoma about 5 years ago, when I was 35. I had a mole on my stomach that was starting to flake and looked red. I assumed that it was from my waist band rubbing the mole and irritating it. When I went to my doctor for my annual physical I asked her if I could have it removed. She referred me to a surgeon in the area who removed the mole in his office and sent it to a lab for testing. A week or so went by and I received a call that it was melanoma.

My first surgery

Unfortunately this surgeon lacked compassion. When you hear the word “cancer” you immediately assume the worst. I asked him if I could die from this and he said (with no emotion) yes. I cried the whole drive home and that evening. I didn’t want to die. I decided that I wanted to get the best possible care and immediately called Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Dermatology department. Through the grace of God I got an appointment within a couple of weeks. They scheduled me for surgery about 2 months later. That was emotional torture, all I could think about was that the cancer was growing inside me. The day of the surgery I was scared beyond words. This was my first surgery. I walked in to the operating room and 3 hours later I woke up in the recovery room to hear the good news “the cancer had not spread in to my stomach muscle.” A week later I found out that the biopsy on the lymph nodes in my groin was negative.

I went on to recover, happy that this was behind me.

Spreading the message

I shared my story with everyone at work and started my quest of educating my co-workers and friends. After hearing my story, my co-worker and friend made an appointment with a dermatologist to have her moles checked. Several weeks later she was diagnosed with melanoma. She tells everyone that if it wasn’t for me she would not have gone to the doctor and would probably be dead. Call me humble but I think she gives me too much credit. I was just sharing my story.

Bad news

Unfortunately, less than 12 months later I was diagnosed with my second melanoma on my chest. I went for my 3 month check up with my dermatologist and she removed 2 suspicious moles. She sent them out for testing and a week later I got the call that the one on my chest was melanoma. This mole was smaller than a pencil eraser, how could it be melanoma? My dermatologist referred me to plastic surgeon who specialized in head and neck cancer. She thought the scar would look better if he did the surgery. I met with the surgeon and we decided to do the surgery in his office since it would be a small excision. He removed the rest of the mole and a week later I got the good news that the cancer had not spread. 0 for 2.

Battle scars

I have 2 keloid scars that I refer to as my battle scars. A 4½ inch scar on my abdomen from my first surgery and a 2 inch scar in the very center of my chest from the second. I could be self conscious and wear shirts and dresses that hide the scar on my chest but I don’t. I also wear a bikini, the scar on my abdomen is fading but it is still noticeable. I do get stares from strangers and sometimes I forget about the scar and think “what are they staring at?” But when they ask how I got it, well that’s the conversation starter. I think they assume that I was shot, stabbed or had heart surgery, although the scar isn’t big enough for heart surgery. I always say “I’m glad you asked. I had melanoma. Wear your sunscreen and stay out of the sun. I was never a sunbather. It can happen to anyone.” Sometimes they ask how it was caught and I get to educate them more. If my scars were covered I wouldn’t have the opportunity to educate people.

Unfortunately my co-worker has been diagnosed with several melanomas since her first. But she is proactive and when she sees something suspicious she makes an appointment. Education really does work.

Good news

I am happy to say that I have been melanoma free for 3 years. I have a routine exam with my dermatologist every 5-6 months now and will for the rest of my life. And every single time I go I hold my breath and hope that nothing looks suspicious and my lymph nodes feel fine. Since I was diagnosed twice the possibility of being diagnosed again is in the back of my mind. And always will be. I am well aware that I am at risk. I use sunscreen and try to avoid the sun during the peak hours.

It has taken me 3 years but I have finally gotten my family to make appointments to be examined. You would think that they would have gone right away. I had to keep telling my brother that he as at risk since he was a sibling of someone who has had melanoma. Unfortunately the only way that got him there was some unsightly skin tags that he wanted removed. He went in August 2007. My mother is scheduled for an appointment in May 2008 and my father in August 2008. It may take a while but you eventually get people to listen.

I’m a survivor

It’s hard for me to think of myself as a cancer survivor. When I think of cancer I think of people who have it worse than me. I think that may be the stigmatism that goes with melanoma, people don’t realize that it is cancer and you can die from it if not caught early.

We need to continue to get the word out about early detection. If I could, I’d pass sunscreen out to everyone I met.

Thanks for listening to my story.

Heather Banz
Baltimore, Maryland

*Published with author’s permission