Before I begin this story, let me tell you how it ends. I’m alive. I have a 6 centimeter-long scar on my upper right arm, and as far as I know I’m in good health. It’ll take about a year to know with any level of certainty, but things are looking good at the moment.
Now that I’ve told you how it ends, let me tell you how it begins. And be forewarned, there will be graphic photos.
At the beginning of this year, I decided to take a big step that I’ve been putting off since I moved to Columbus. I saw a general practitioner to establish care. My last visit to a doctor had been almost a year and a half prior, when I still lived in Blacksburg. Since then I had visited a psychologist several times to keep my prescriptions current, but I hadn’t seen a doctor for my general health.
My new doctor helped me figure out and fix what was wrong with my ears (impacted wax), took my complete health history, and ordered some blood work for me. Then she pointed at a large mole on my upper right arm.
“How long has that been there?” She asked me.
“As long as I can remember,” I said. “I can’t really think of a time without it. My last doctor looked at it a couple of years ago and said that it was fine.”
“Maybe we should have a dermatologist look at it, just to be sure. I’m going to set you up with an appointment.”
A few weeks later I stood in the middle of a dermatologist’s office as he used a small, slim razor blade to shave the mole off of my arm, and I watched as a tiny piece of me was carried away in the middle of a sample dish.
This was unexpected, which is why I don’t have a picture of the mole to show you. Instead, I have the above picture, which is what it looked like later that same day when it had gone from being a mole to being a hole cut in my arm.
Less than a week later, my test results came in. The mole tested positive for melanoma cells. The doctor was fairly confident that we had caught it early, but he wanted me to come in for surgery to remove more of the skin to make certain there wasn’t any evidence of the cancer having spread.
Let’s be honest about this: This shocked me into a deep funk. I didn’t think I was at a high risk for skin cancer. I’m a young, fairly healthy man (I have a few more pounds than I would like, but nothing too bad). A little under a year prior, I had used a tanning bed a few times — but always on low power, because I was trying to compensate for working nights and sleeping days. It turns out, however, that the tanning bed may have been a major factor, because the lamps in the beds in particular like to turn benign moles cancerous.
It was at this point that I started looking into melanoma to see how likely my survival was. That research didn’t last long. The first thing I came across was the five-year survival rate. 98% if it’s detected early and still localized — which is awesome — but only 17% if it has spread.
Naturally, I tried to arrange my surgery as quickly as possible. A couple of weeks later, I went in and they made a series of marks about 1 cm around the existing hole.
Then from those marks, they drew a diamond shape around it the spot. “The original marks are what we send for testing, just to make sure there are no cells in it,” the dermatologist explained. “The bottom ‘V’ closes up the surgery. The top one keeps the scar straight.” He would repeat this several times during the surgery.
The surgery was longer than I expected, although not any longer than the dermatologist said he was used to. It was all done under a local anesthetic.
At one point, I looked up at the lamp the doctor was using to light the surgery and saw a reflection of my own arm, essentially flayed as the doctor was finishing removing a section of the skin.
“That’s interesting,” I said.
“I can see the operation in the lamp.”
The doctor looked up. “Oh, God! Sorry! I usually remember to tell people not to look at it for just that reason.”
“No, it’s no problem. It doesn’t bother me, I just think it’s interesting.”
Once the surgery was done and all stitched up, the dermatologist looked at my remaining moles and declared them to be benign. Then he told me that I needed to avoid lifting heavy weights for a while and sent me on my way. When he asked me if I had any questions, I had one:
“I know we won’t know for sure until we see results,” I said, “but based on your own experience, how do you think it went?”
“Everything looked fine,” he said. “We can’t say for sure without the test, but I didn’t see any indicators that your melanoma wasn’t localized.”
Around a week later, they called me with results from my test. The additional skin they had taken tested clean, suggesting that the dermatologist was right. The melanoma was caught early, and I’m in the range where 98% survive five years or more without a reoccurrence.
Since then, I’ve been healing. Since the surgery was on my dominant arm, it made keeping up with drawing my comic strip very difficult — any level of fine motor control tired my arm out quickly, and I couldn’t handle lifting my arm much beyond certain angles.
As of Tuesday, the bandage is off of my arm. The stitches have been out for a while. My arm still gets tired and the skin feels a little tight where it was stretched to close up the surgery, but I’m no longer in danger of re-opening my incision. Some pain still happens at certain angles, but nothing severe.
I’ve been talking about doing some cosplay for a while. With a scar this size on my arm, I’ve been considering getting into shape and putting together some barbarian characters. From what I hear, this is a major anniversary year for Conan.
It feels great to be cancer-free (as far as we know), and at this point I’m working on trying to make sure my life has everything I want in it from this point.
In the meantime, I’ve set up a payment plan to take care of my medical bills. And I’m back writing and I’m working on getting my comic strip running again.
I want to thank everybody. The beginning of 2018 was a very difficult time for me. And now I’m working on making the rest of 2018 great. And I’m happy to be heading into my next birthday in just a few days with what appears to be a clean bill of health.