Vanity saved my life

Family Photo

Gemma with son Liam, husband Paul and daughter Jess

I owe my friend my life. 

It had been a few months since I last saw her and the first thing I noticed as she breezed through my front door was her skin, fresh and pink as salmon.

"You look great," I said trying not to narrow my eyes.

"Laser," she beamed, casually as though laser was on a par with flossing your teeth.

"You mean, the skin treatment?"

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She just smiled, her skin shimmering like the Pacific at sunset. My own skincare routine entailed little more than a splash of cold water, so it’s not altogether surprising that I found myself sitting opposite a dermatologist a month later.

"These laser treatments," I said, my voice like a child’s.

The dermatologist was squinting at my arm. 

"Are there any risks of scarring?’

She didn’t answer.  Instead she pointed to a small, red lesion.  "I don’t like the look of that.  How long has it been there for?"

I glanced up at the ceiling trying to remember.

"Has it changed at all, or bled even?"

I remembered dabbing at it with tissue once thinking I'd caught it on something.

The dermatologist folded her hands in her lap and said, "Look, it’s probably nothing but let's take a shave just to be on the safe side."

I left her room with a patch slapped on my arm, laser treatments banished from my mind. I merged back into daily life and was beginning to feel like the whole episode had been a dream when she called me a few days later and asked me to come back in.

"You have an amelanotic melanoma," she said, arching her neatly pruned eyebrows. 

I felt giddy.  "A what melanoma?’"

"An amelanotic melanoma.  They're not dark like the usual ones and often go undetected until it's too late.  You’re very lucky."

"But I’m only 39."

"It can happen to anyone."

"But I grew up in England.  We don’t have sun in England."

She smiled and patted my hand softly.  "The good news is it’s only Stage 2.  Stage 2 is good."  

"Stage 2? What happened to Stage 1?"

"It’s only 0.7mm in depth.  Generally, they’re not dangerous until they are a millimeter deep.’ 

'I'm 0.3 of a millimetre away from potential death?"

She took a second biopsy "for accuracy" and reassured me a dozen times I'd be fine.  But I didn’t feel fine as I waited for the results of the second biopsy.  No matter how many times I convinced myself the worst was over, these niggling doubts would creep into my head, escalating until I could feel the palpitations of my heart, have to sit down and pull myself back to earth. I spent hours on the internet reading about melanomas, and the news was not altogether reassuring. 

According to Melanoma Institute Australia, melanoma is the most common cancer in young Australians aged 15 to 44 years of age; 11,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.  A melanoma only needs to get 1mm deep before it can get into the blood stream or lymphatic system and spread to other parts of the body. But it wasn't all bad news. Melanomas that are detected and treated early have the best outcome and need less invasive treatment. Even better, they can often be removed during the initial biopsy and don't need any further treatment.

I wished I could take it all back. Reverse the clock. I’d happily forgo the Laser. I’d happily hang on to my grey, elephant-hide skin.  My only wish was that I did age… another forty years or more if possible. 

Was I being punished for my moment of vanity?

When the dermatologist did call four days later, I was at the gym in full exertion.

"Great news," she said.  "As I expected, we got it all."

I could virtually hear my lungs deflate, expelling the air they’d held hostage the past week.

"You’ll still need to have a wider excision; it’s purely insurance in case any cells have been missed.  You may want to consider a plastic surgeon."

"A plastic surgeon? I've only ever contemplated enlisting one of those to eradicate these monumental suitcases from under my eyes."

The plastic surgeon was straight from the textbook: tall, suave and handsome.  His suite was in the medical wing of a local hospital.  I watched his forehead as he read my diagnosis sheet; not a single furrow.  I wondered whether he’d had laser.

"My recommendation is that we book you in for day surgery," he said with a voice as smooth as a saxophone. 

I remembered my $500 excess. "Is that really necessary?"

"It’s quite a wide excision for such a small arm." He smiled and the whole room melted around me.

So, I trundled into the day surgery wing of the hospital the following week.  An unsympathetic nurse handed me a hospital gown, some socks and a hair cap and shuffled me into a small room to change.  I emerged looking like I’d stepped out of an episode of Scrubs.  I was plopped onto a bed with wheels and pushed to the operating theatre thinking it all seemed a bit melodramatic; I could still walk after all. It really was the tiniest looking lesion.  The plastic surgeon greeted me with that dreamy smile and introduced the anaesthetist, who advised sedation.  As he attached the drip he warned me I’d feel like I’d downed a few whiskeys which I remember having no problem with at all.  In fact, I remember feeling ‘absolutely awesome’ as I told him, ‘ready to hit the city,’ and then I must have passed out, probably with my tongue lolling out to one side.

When I woke, I was in a completely different room surrounded by other gown-clad people with bandages on various parts of their bodies.  I texted my husband who was waiting to pick me up, "Still high as a kite!"

A young girl was wheeled into the room with a bandage wrapped around her face. The sedation wore off fairly quickly after that.  I heaved myself off my trolley to change, glancing at the huge patch on my arm; some blood seeping through its fine material.  

My husband was waiting for me near reception. He frowned when he saw the size of the bandage and took hold of my hand.  We left the hospital together, ready to put the whole episode behind us. Yet I knew that things would never be the same again. I would live with this fear forever. 

SK2

Gemma's scar from melanoma

The scar is turning red, the skin around it tight and sore.  It’s testament to the unforgiving nature of skin cancer. They advised three monthly checks of both skin and lymph nodes for the next three years.  Apparently, I now have a higher risk of developing other melanomas. The doctors know how serious it is. That’s why all the melodrama. I’m lucky. I can’t imagine what others go through.

Australia still has the highest sin cancer incidence rate in the world with melanoma.org.au reporting 1 in 19 Australias diagnosed before the age of 85. More than 11,000 new cases are diagnosed in Australia each year and it's the most common form of cancer in young Australians aged 15-44 years of age.

During winter months UV radiation is less than in summer months however winter sports at high altitudes such as skiing and snowboarding increase UV exposure. Have your spots checked regularly as early detection is the key making a complete recovery. For more tips visit cancercouncil.com.au.

Gemma Hawdon is a mother, wife and dabbling writer living in Melbourne. Her blog topoftheslushpile.com documents the joys and challenges of writing her first book (a children's fantasy novel) which she has just completed – hooray! Gemma spends her days floating from one café to the next in search of the perfect 'office café'. When she's not writing, she's completing the paperwork she continually puts off for their family-run business in the construction industry. Her favourite pastimes include loitering in book stores, reading with her children and long dog walks. Her biggest vex is trying to stop their family rabbits from eating all of their garden plants (they run free most of the day).

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