I can’t lie to myself anymore.
I can’t live like I’m invincible and continue to eat, drink and party with no thought of responsibility or accountability. I should probably calm down my YOLO lifestyle. It’s true I will only live once, especially in New York City, but instead of adopting this mantra as permission to make poor decisions, I’ll need to use it as a reminder to watch my back.
Literally, I need to watch my back.
A four-inch scar now marks the spot on my right shoulder where my skin cancer once lived. Like a cow that’s been branded, I too was cauterized and sewn up following Mohs surgery to remove the Basal Cell Carcinoma. I am in no danger of dying and I never was.
Recovery has been painful, but not debilitating. For the first week, I felt the sore when I walked, when I washed my hair and when I cut vegetables. It was a constant reminder – so much so that I eventually started hugging my arm to my torso to minimize the swinging and swaying.
This pause on my active lifestyle has me thinking about what happens next. The worst part of my cancer diagnosis, surgery and recovery so far has been that I haven’t been able to do yoga. Woe is me. But while I feel unworthy of sympathy, I also feel scared as hell.
Two days before my surgery, I learned a girl from my high school had died of cancer. I found out later it the cancer was melanoma, which is the most aggressive form of skin cancer. She was 29 – my age.
When I first visited my dermatologist he was more concerned with a dark mole on my lower back than he was about the seeping, open wound on my shoulder. He feared it could be melanoma. The results came back negative thank God, but that mole is just one of what must be thousands that freckle my body. Now I live in fear that this army of black speckles will one day take a turn. Could they possibly mutiny into melanoma? The answer is yes.
As a teenager I stayed out in the sun all day and religiously used tanning beds as part of my beauty regimen. This summer, however, I was a gold-star dermatological patient; I applied and re-applied SPF, kept my clothes on for the most part and spent prime sun time underneath the umbrella. But, the damage has been done. While observing me under the UV lights, both my dermatologist and my surgeon have commented something along the lines of, “You were a sun worshipper when you were younger, weren’t you?”
I’ve cheated death once and I feel like I won’t be able to do it again.
So, I’ve started to research how to prevent my cancer from coming back. What I’ve found is essentially the same advice I’ve been reading in women’s magazines since I was a teenager: Stay out of the sun, eat more fruits and vegetables while limiting red meat and processed food. The American Cancer Society says I can try to stave off a recurrence by exercising and limiting alcohol. As a twenty-something who exercises five times per week, eats mainly salads and only drinks on weekends all these suggestions tell me one thing. There’s nothing I can do.
I’m a cancer survivor and now my chances of it coming back are increased. What’s more is that cancer runs in my family. Both my mom and my paternal aunt are breast cancer survivors and my sister survived thyroid cancer. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to do my best. I’m not overweight, I don’t smoke, I eat as cleanly as possible and now I’ve also abandoned my yolo-ing ways of binge drinking and sun worshipping.
The day of my surgery the doctor’s assistant held up a mirror so I could see my newly-sutured scar. Shocked by the size of it, I said, “I’m going to be hideous!”
“You’re going to be alive,” she replied.
It’s true – I’m alive and am doing my part to stay that way. I can only hope my body returns the favor.