April 23rd was the day we called to schedule a routine dermatology appointment for my husband. My husband had been complaining the night before about this mole itching on his back. Instantly, my mind recalled that back in November of 2020, a Facebook friend had recently shared her experience with skin cancer. I remember keeping up with her updates and saying a few prayers for her. I even went back and stalked her page again to read the details she shared of her personal story and how she wanted to bring light to Melanoma. In retrospect, this was an overdue appointment and should have happened a few months earlier.
On April 27th, my husband had his ugly mole biopsied from his back and came home with eight stiches. Our dermatologist told us that he didn’t like the way it looked so he would send it off to a pathology lab. Immediately, my mind went dark and regret filled every space. Why didn’t I push to schedule this earlier? In hindsight, my husband doesn’t see his back enough for him to have noticed the tiny changes over the last 6 months. I, on the other hand, most definitely saw the changes and kept making mental notes to try to force him to schedule an appointment, but I never verbally expressed my concerns.
April 30th was the day the hidden agenda of the ugly mole came to light; it was Skin Cancer, specifically Malignant Melanoma. If you don’t know much about Melanoma, it is dangerous because it is more likely to metastasize as compared to other types of skin cancers. It is commonly found on the surface of the skin, such as the neck, back, or legs but it can be found in areas of the body where the skin doesn’t necessarily get exposure to the sun. My husband’s cancer was found on the right side of his mid-back. Flashbacks hit me frequently after his diagnosis; recalling specifically when my husband used to work in the yard with no shirt or sunscreen on or even times where he went to the tanning bed to work on his “base” tan. If you don’t know him, he leans toward a paler complexion as compared to my olive complexion. I referred to my friend’s social media posts frequently to understand what our next steps might look like in our own diagnosis and even reached out to her for support.
My husband had his follow-up appointment with the dermatologist May 3rd, when we received the full pathology report showing us all the details of what they call the “tumor”. At this point, we were referred to a surgical oncologist, but he wouldn’t be available until May 11th. We knew he had cancer and knew the details about the tumor itself, but didn’t know what stage or the next steps in this journey. I have a type A personality, so I researched everything there was to know about Malignant Melanoma. I found a support group on Facebook and found a couple of great sites with great info. There have been many advances in the last ten years in terms of treatments for skin cancers. I found this reassuring, but to be fully honest, there is still a lot of published and outdated information that scared us. If you do your own research, be wary of what you read.
On May 7th, my 2nd daughter turned 3 months. My husband and I made a commitment to not do anymore research until we met with the surgical oncologist. We spent the next few days spending quality time with both of our daughters. On May 11th, we met with the surgical oncologist and his massive team of residents. He walked us through what the next couple of weeks or months would look like. Again, we reviewed the pathology report and left there with a surgery date to do a wide local excision (WLE) around the tumor site and a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB). We made a point of putting our thoughts and energy into our upcoming family trip to Florida. We spent the next couple of weeks at the beach, at Disney and spending lots of quality time with friends and family.
Surgery Day ~ June 3rd, we arrived at the cancer center at 6:00 in the morning. At 8:00AM, my husband had a dye injection in and around the tumor site which would help tell us the lymphatic roadmap and lead us to the sentinel lymph node to be biopsied. At 9:30AM, we got the news that the sentinel lymph node was in his arm pit and shortly after they carted him off for surgery. The surgery took about two hours and he was able to come home the same day. Over the next week, my husband focused on recovery and we waited again very impatiently for an update.
The news came June 4th, while I was on a conference call for work, so I missed the phone call about his results. As soon as I looked at my husband’s face, I knew that it wasn’t the news we were hoping for. We were hoping that the cancer had not spread to his lymph nodes which is why it was important to find the sentinel lymph node. Unfortunately, the pathology report told us that of the four lymph nodes removed, two showed positive for cancer. We were immediately referred to a medical oncologist and met with him on June 8th. This is where we learned that my husband was categorized as having Stage 3 Malignant Melanoma. We were introduced to a various number of treatment options and chose the route of immunotherapy.
Technically, at this point, we were told that all the visible cancer had been removed from his body, but we wouldn’t know for sure until he had scans completed. My husband was scheduled to have multiple body & brain scans (MRI & PET) over the next week. His first infusion date was June 15th where they gave him an infusion through an IV drip. During that 45-minute infusion, we played an overdue game of Settlers of Catan, sipped on apple juice, and enjoyed each other’s company.
What are the next steps in this journey? Every three weeks, my husband will receive an immunotherapy infusion and every three months, he will have scans done and a full body examination with his dermatologist. We are living in three week and three month increments for the next year.
In summary, it took eight weeks from the initial dermatology appointment to my husband’s first immunotherapy infusion. I try not to think about the dreaded “What if?” questions that frequently invade my head. This one frequently haunts me: “What if I had scheduled the appointment back in January when I first noticed the mole changing?”
What I’ve learned through this whole journey, other than increasing my personal anxieties, is that we must live in the present. Take it all day by day. Don’t live in the past or in the future. This approach has helped both my husband and I cope with our own anxieties and learn to lean on each other more. Our marriage has strengthened, and we don’t take one another for granted anymore. We splurge when we can, we value our time together and we try to stress a little bit less these days. Life likes to throw some curve balls and whether we like it or not, we’re still ready for them. We’re ready to go to war if need be and we have a strong support system behind us. Good riddance, ugly mole!