It was a little after the one-year anniversary of my stage 1 melanoma (March 14, 2014) that now looks like a 'dog bite' indentation on the top of my left shoulder. I was at the dermatologist for yet another three-month full-body skin check yesterday and she biopsied three moles this time. I have had too many biopsies to count. Out of all those, three times since the melanoma, there needed to be larger excisions (surgeries) to have wide margins on suspicious moles that they didn’t quite call melanoma. Instead of one 'dog bite' on my left shoulder, I now have three more over the past year — one on my calf, one on my thigh, and one on my back.
I am too old for beauty contests anyway. I grin because it is good that I am older. I am currently waiting for the pathology reports for the most recent three moles just removed. Waiting is the hard part.
I am five years out from my breast cancer diagnosis (May 6, 2010, at the age of 46) on my right breast and one year out from the melanoma on my left shoulder. After each diagnosis and treatment, the doctors did not say "you are cured." They say "we will wait and watch." I know my odds in both cases are pretty good. I know it is healthiest for me to be vigilant and to get on with living my life. Some days doing that is more difficult than it sounds. Waiting. Watching. Observing. Deciding when it is time to bring a concern to the doctor just in case.
It is wise to be educated in what to watch for. It is good to be observant. Over time and experience, I have decided it is better to get things that worry me checked out by my doctor sooner rather than later — for my mental and emotional health as well as my physical well-being. Any time I can shorten a period of worry and uncertainty, it is a good thing for me. There is less spillover into the rest of my life, and I can get on with moving forward rather than being pulled down by even more uncertainty and fear.
Uncertainty is hard on people. It wears us down. It nibbles away at our thoughts and feelings. We all live with some uncertainty, but medical uncertainty is a very intimate and personal situation day after day, week after week, month after month, and, if we are fortunate, year after year. Are we really OK? Will it (the cancer) come back? Worry can be a subtle and lingering thing.
To cope with uncertainty and worry, I am getting better at a skill I utterly lacked before cancer — patience. I am still not the most patient person, but I am a work in progress. Meditation, keeping my hands busy, and connecting with nature all help me. Seeking distraction when needed is good too — a craft, a movie, shopping, or a walk.
What is the flip side of uncertainty? Certainty, I guess. We all like the satisfaction of knowing. In truth, all people live with uncertainty. Cancer survivors live more aware of uncertainty, but I think there is an upside to that too. As a cancer survivor, my uncertainty, ironically, gives me a greater sense of gratitude and appreciation for many things, large and small, in my life — a sunny day, someone home from college, a snuggle on the couch with a dog. Living with uncertainty makes all that stuff matter more.
So what are the takeaways? Resolve medical uncertainties as soon as possible for physical, mental, and emotional good health, learn tools to grow your patience, and practice gratitude. All of those things can help a cancer survivor manage "wait and watch." As for me, I am taking a deep breath and heading out into the sunny day — I will let you know how my most recent biopsies turn out.
Great article! Words are so much more important that doctors realize. I am the very fortunate 14+ year survivor of inflammatory breast cancer because I refused to believe in the statistical median survival of 18 months. I recall telling another doctor -- not my oncologist -- about my diagnosis and prognosis. "No one survives this disease in the long term!" His calm response: "Until now." Those became my words to live by. Forget about "When, not if" The chemo will eventually stop working -- "until now". Someone has to be the new record setter. Why not you?
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