The six-inch long, one-inch wide scar on my back is all that’s left from a malignant tumor just HALF a millimeter thick. Melanoma is the leading cause of cancer death in young women, and it’s not “just skin cancer,” so #coverupbuttercup because there’s nothing sexy about a ‘wide excision.’ I think it’s time we all just love the skin we live in!
It’s been almost six months since my surgery, and I am incredibly blessed to say I am cancer free. I learned a lot from being “diagnosed with cancer” at 31. It sounds so strange to say that, I have to put it in quotes. When I fill out medical forms now, I check “cancer” under history. I have bi-monthly follow up visits, check my lymph nodes regularly, and wear more sunscreen in a day than most people do all summer (the chemical-free kind, of course). But it’s not all bad. Cancer also brought many gifts, including an incredible appreciation for life, what really matters, and some serious motivation to push myself hard and help others. I’ll touch on many of those lessons here.
Mind Over Madness
“You have melanoma – do you know what that is?” asked Katie, after calling an untold number of times to reach me. I remember my husband dropped the bag of groceries he was holding. I laughed out loud at the irony; I was wearing my usual outfit at the time, a 5” brim hat like the kind you’d see in Pretty Woman and a long sleeve UPF 50 shirt.
In that moment, I made a conscious decision that I would find something positive in this experience every single day. To start, that night, I ran the fastest five miles of my life with a headlamp around our horse pasture. I kept the diagnosis, for the most part, a secret until many weeks after my surgery, except for a handful of people whom I knew would go along with my “good vibes only” mindset.
I was halfway through Navy Seal Commander Mark Divine’s book, Unbeatable Mind, the day I got the call. I had been strangely fascinated with mindset science, especially how professional athletes and military special forces perform under pressure. Then, I stumbled upon something really wild: a field of study called neuropsychoimmunology: that’s code for, your brain and psyche have a measurable impact on your body’s ability to fight sickness, disease, and even cancer. That settled it: there was no room in my head for negative anything.
The morning I interviewed the man who would ultimately be my surgeon, I went to a Barre class, and put on my favorite tee, “Choose Happiness.” I stopped at a random juice bar I’d never heard of, and when I got back to my car, I read a message on the bottle that I will never forget: “Dear Friend, I hope all is well with you and that you are as healthy in body as you are strong in spirit -2 John 1:2.”
In that moment, I realized a deeper connectedness of mind, spirit, and body. My faith, marriage, and love of fitness allowed me to choose happiness every day, and made it possible for me to crush melanoma with no disruption to my life, work, or attitude. Some free things you can do to choose happiness in your own life: start a gratitude journal, be kind to strangers, practice breathing/yoga/meditation, go for a walk, pray. Perhaps best of all, spend quality time with the people you love.
When – not if – you have a life-changing event, illness or major stress in your life, you need a strategy to deal with it. Running was a terrific outlet for me because it allowed me to think about nothing else but putting one foot in front of the other. What’s your go-to de-stressor? You need one (or three, if you’re into triathlon).
From the parking lot of the Moffitt Cancer Center on the day I learned the margins of my wide excision were clear – indicating a significant chance that the cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes – I signed up for a half Ironman to celebrate my gratitude for life. I had never swam freestyle and didn’t own a bike. My mission was to meet as many athletes as possible to raise awareness for skin cancer. It was sheer fate that I met Stefani Schuetz, two-time melanoma survivor and founder of Tri Sirena, through a woman triathlete I found on Ironman’s website, who spent an hour coaching me (to her, a complete stranger) on how to tackle my goal – thank you, Cindy!
Since joining the Tri Sirena team and using triathlon forums and events to promote skin checks, UPF gear, and sunblock, I’ve received countless messages from friends and complete strangers, who have been screened. Many of those people found Basil Cell Cancer or precancerous spots they didn’t know they had. Reality check… no matter your age, skin color, or exposure, you will likely, at some point, have an issue with your skin. It’s kind of the only thing between you and a very hot, very dangerous dose of the sun. Just one sunburn or trip to the tanning bed can speed that process up substantially.
After you schedule your long overdue skin check, take some time to consider what’s most important to you. We all have reasons we do the things we do. How well aligned are you with yours? Are you going through the motions, or do you remind yourself regularly, how your actions, decisions, and habits, are bringing out your best self?
Challenge Changes You
Five months ago, I was choking on gallons of pool water learning to swim freestyle for the first time. Three weeks ago, I swam 1.2 miles in the open water (with hundreds of people splashing around me), biked 56 hilly miles, then ran 13.1 more. I finished my first tri, Ironman Florida 70.3, in 6 hours and 43 minutes, and I loved every minute of it.
Most people who have done an Ironman (or frankly, anything hard) find a strength within themselves they never knew they had: and I don’t necessarily mean physical strength, although that tends to come with the package. Surprisingly, the best part wasn’t pushing my body to its limit: it was developing my mindset along the journey. There is no better feeling than to accomplish something that once seemed impossible. So the next time you find yourself daydreaming like, “wouldn’t it be cool if…” stop stopping yourself.
We all have goals, but without a precise plan to accomplish them, they rarely come true. Your dreams need to be specific, and as I learned from a business partner – whose speech on the lessons he learned from cancer truly inspired me – your goals need dates attached to them. Notice the difference between, “I would love to do an Ironman someday,” and, “I’m competing in Ironman Florida on November 3.” Which will likely happen first (or ever)? The same goes for a traumatic event. If you have nothing to look forward to, what’s the rush to get better, physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually?
A few questions to consider: how are you challenging yourself today? Are you stuck in the same routine that isn’t serving your passion or purpose? Are your best memories from “back in the day when I used to…” or are you out making new ones?
Another thing cancer taught me is that you can prevent a lot of – but certainly not all – bad things from happening to you. I insist you (yes, YOU!) go to a dermatologist and get your skin checked, and do this every single year. It takes 10 minutes and is non-invasive. Even if you’re careful in the sun, which I was as long as I can remember, time and chance happen to us all. I’ve worn UPF 50 shirts for many years. I carry three kinds of sunblock in my purse. I am a hat pusher. As athletes who spend a vast amount of time outdoors, we are especially exposed. The key to not dying from melanoma is to find it before it spreads elsewhere in your body. Or even better, limit your risk factors. Wear long sleeve sun protective clothing (hint: Tri Sirena Midnight Mermaid), sun block, and hats, especially ones that cover your ears and the back of your neck.
But this applies to more than soaking in the sun (which I never did). Preventative care, in general, can save you a world of trouble. I know there are many of you who are putting off that Doctor’s appointment for whatever reason. In fact, I almost didn’t go and have that freckle on my back looked at. I am living proof to trust your gut feeling, take your health into your own hands, and pay attention to your body. Oddly enough, I found my melanoma checking out my back muscles in the mirror (yes, seriously). By the grace of God, it was just stage I. They only had to cut out a four-inch diameter circle through all the layers of my skin and fat, down to the muscle. I hope you realize just how serious this is.
Much love to you all and best wishes finding your healthiest, happiest self. My prayers go out to all who are battling cancer. Never give up! You got this.
Written by Sarah Vita, Siren Luminary
Follow Sarah on Instagram! @sarahvita316