“Do you want the good news first or the bad?”
When my dermatologist, who studied English in undergrad, starts a conversation with this cliché, I know it can't be good.
“I always tell the bad news first,” he says in his next breath.
I have only a split second to brace for impact.
Two weeks before, I sat in the same spot at the dermatologist. Clad in a paper smock and perched on a table, I waited. It’d been three years since my last visit. I'd gone in vain to see how I could remedy the persistent patches of dry skin on my face. This time, Jacob had encouraged me to make an appointment. There was a weird mole on my back, one he’d never really noticed before. Then, when it started bleeding, he begged me.
In that initial visit, the doctor scooped out two chunks of suspicious skin. One from my leg and then the one from my back.
“Your boyfriend has a good eye,” the nurse said. “What’s he do?”
“Construction,” I said.
The doctor said if anything shows up in the tests, he’d call. But because I’m young and because I hadn't cooked in a tanning bed, it’d probably be nothing.
“How long do I have to anxiously wait?” I asked a few co-workers as we sat by the pool the following weekend. They understood my anxiety, the thoughts that take over my head during these waiting games. My feet dangled in the water, and the holes in my skin were bandaged up — Swiss cheese Jacob called me. Even so, I soaked in the sun, still reveling in the warmth that lingered on my skin when I went to bed that night.
I had stopped thinking about the suspect mole until I received a voicemail about a week later. At work, I tucked myself away in a quiet phone booth and called back.
“The doctor wants you to come back in,” the nurse said. I begged her to share some details with me, but she said she didn’t have any — just a note left on her desk. I secured the first available appointment: 8 a.m. the following morning.
And that’s when I was hit with the “good news/bad news” schtick.
The bad: Melanoma.
The good: Stage zero.
Survival rate: 100%.
Surgery, a good-sized scar, no exercise for six weeks.
"If I were to have skin cancer, this is the kind I’d want," the doctor says. "You caught it early.”
Still, my fingers and toes go cold. The word cancer lingers.
The doctor keeps talking to me, and to my mom, who’s crying in the chair next to me.
He breaks out a diagram of the skin and starts pointing. His explanation goes something like this: “Here, you’ve got the epidermis. That’s where the melanoma is now. That’s good. If you’d waited a year from now, it could have tunneled down into the dermis layer, and that’s where it can spread to the rest of the body, through the lymph nodes.”
He continues to talk as he feels around my major lymph node groupings. All seems good. Surgery in two weeks. Local anesthesia. Stitches. Scarring.
"Don't Google this," he added before leaving me to get dressed.
I didn’t cry while in the doctor’s office. I let my mom handle that. But as soon as we emerged into the parking lot, the tears struck. And continued into the afternoon.
It’s weird, getting served a little dose of reality like that. First, I had to disassociate the word cancer from death. That's what I've known. But then I allowed myself to take a little time to go down the “what if?” spiral of thoughts, just for a dash of perspective and a lot of gratitude.
I had my surgery today. The most painful part was the initial shots of local anesthesia. And listening to the doctor as he walked his intern through each step — verbally, descriptively. And hearing snipping sounds. And that he could see my muscle; it was twitching. Mom described the chunk of skin he removed like a half-dollar-sized "plug."
Ironically, Pandora's Margaritaville radio played in the background. Lyrics of sunshine, sand and José Cuervo filled the otherwise sparse room. I pictured myself at the sandbar — wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and long-sleeve rash guard, of course.
Now, I have two layers of about nine stitches each. I'm sore, and I can't move too much. Because I didn’t have a whole lot of loose skin on my back, it's tight. (I told the doctor he could take some extra skin from my thighs if he needed. He didn’t think it was as funny as I did.)
In all, he assured me it’d heal up nicely, though it’ll definitely be visible and people will likely ask me about it. That’s OK, though, because I’m happy to spread some awareness on a matter I'd only read about, one I ignorantly assumed wouldn't affect me.