As far back as I can remember, I have worshipped the sun. My skin is fair, but as the years have gone by, it has toughened and darkened. I now turn a rich golden brown every summer, but only after the first day of burning. I am relatively careful these days. I wear a sunscreen with at least SPF 30, even though I may not apply it as regularly as I could. And as for staying out of the sun during the hottest part of the day? That’s prime suntanning time.
Three weeks ago, my friend Sophie gave me two CDs by a singer named Eva Cassidy. I had never heard of this singer with an angelic voice, so I Googled her. I learned that years ago, when she was 30, she had had a small, dark mole removed from her back. It was a malignant melanoma, said the doctors, but they had caught it early and removed everything with surgery. Three years later, after experiencing pain in her hip, they found that the surgery had not removed everything; the melanoma had spread, and cancer was everywhere. She died at 33.
Some might call this a God moment. Had Sophie not given me those specific CDs, had I not been inclined to look up this singer, I wouldn’t have been thinking about moles. I would not, that night, have noticed, quite by chance, a small mole almost at the rear of my left calf, which seemed somehow not quite right.
It wasn’t very big, but it was uneven, and in the middle was a black splatter, like paint.
I went to my dermatologist, who expressed no concern, but her face had a grave intensity as she removed it to send off for a biopsy, and I knew the news wouldn’t be good.
She phoned three days later. I was on a train on my way home from a breakfast in New York. “Do you have time to talk?” she asked. “Cancer. Malignant melanoma.”
The good news is it’s a thin melanoma, under 1 mm, and it’s Stage I.
The bad news is that my thin melanoma has something called mitosis, which means the cancer cells are dividing and multiplying even as I write. My thin melanoma has already spread outside of the tumor and into the deep layers of skin. Without the mitosis, it’s a slam dunk. The mole is removed, and with it the cancer. With the mitosis, it becomes a slightly different beast, one that has brought sleepless nights filled with endless Internet searches, one that has a less predictable outcome.
I am under the best care at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, where surgery will remove the tissue and a lymph-node biopsy will reveal if it has spread, if in fact my Stage I cancer might be Stage III. Although unlikely, that possibility brings a level of uncertainty that is unfamiliar and frightening.
Melanoma is not the most common of skin cancers, but it is the most dangerous if not found in the early stages. Melanoma causes 80% of skin-cancer deaths. According to the Melanoma Research Alliance, more than 76,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with it each year, one every eight minutes — and roughly 9,500 die from it, one every hour.
Despite all the advancements in the medical world, the death rate from melanoma has remained static for 30 years, and the incidence is rising — it is the fastest-growing cancer in the world. When it is caught early enough, the cure rate can be 100%. (For more information on how to spot dangerous moles, visit the Melanoma Research Alliance.)
As AIDS was in the 1980s, cancer has become the plague we are all living with today. Five years ago, one of my best friends was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. She died seven months later, in September 2009. Another friend has recently emerged triumphant after battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
I am Superwoman. I am the author of 15 novels, including one about cancer. I am not, however, someone who gets cancer. I am a sun worshipper who never thought it could happen to me.
There will be a lesson in this. I’m just not yet sure what it is. Recognizing the grace, kindness and generosity of those around me, or my own resilience and strength, perhaps. We shall see.
In the meantime, after the tears, I have taken to heart what Winston Churchill once said: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” I plan to keep going. Hopefully for a very long time.
Green is the author of 15 best-selling novels dealing with real women, real life and all the things in between. She writes a daily blog and contributes to various publications including Huffington Post, the Sunday Times, Wowowow and Self. Her most recent novel, Tempting Fate, was published this spring.