Twelve years ago during my junior year in college, I was walking off the lacrosse field and my mom noticed a mole on my left arm that stood out. It was large and didn’t look right. She made an appointment right away and I went to see a dermatologist for the first time in my life. The unknown is scary, but I knew I was in the right place and that I was doing the right thing by getting it checked out. The doctor took a biopsy of the mole. About a week later, I got the phone call that changed my entire life. I had Stage 1 melanoma. The call hit me like a ton of bricks; I couldn’t breathe and I immediately broke down crying – I’m only 20, I have one more year in college, plans to attend graduate school, start a career, am I going to die?!?! So much goes through your head, usually the worst, too. Soon I was back at the doctor and had an excision surgery to remove the melanoma. Funny as I think back, how much my body image has changed. Back then I wanted to hide my scars. Isn't that what the magazines say…cover stick, topical scar fillers, scar fading creams. Isn't this what society expects...fast forward to today, I rock the hell outta my battle wounds and see them as constant reminders - I am an athlete and a beautiful, successful, bad-ass woman (as my husband likes to say)!
In the years since, I have had over a hundred biopsies and had hundreds of prayers said over me (thanks mom and dad!). We sit quietly, often impatiently as we wait for the pathology results. Best case scenario is when the biopsies come back clean. Sometimes they come back as atypical (precancerous) but margins cleared from biopsies, and my family, husband and I usually toast to the good news and go about our lives. I have had a handful of melanoma in situ (Stage 0) which requires a smaller excision surgery. I have periods with no biopsies at all and it was during one of these long stretches that a change occurred. Another melanoma right in the middle of my back. Fortunately my parents were able to come out to Maui for moral support during this surgery. My mom sat in on the surgery, she remembers my surgeon saying to her that she "had never had a mom sit in on a surgery ". Mom said she just wanted to make sure she had “clean lines with her excision and tight sutures because we had a wedding right around the corner” (we had just bought my wedding dress which had a keyhole back); but really I knew my mom was watching the surgeons every move and praying, silently saying her rosary, hoping this would be it, they would get it all, no further treatments necessary, and I would be healthy. Prayers answered – the excision was successful and margins cleared!
Most recently, September 2016, we got some pathology back for a biopsy done on my neck. Malignant melanoma Stage 1, here we go again…my head began spinning. Did someone punch me in the stomach? I think I’m going to throw up…shock…do we have to do this again? Does this only end when we get a pathology report that things have progressed and nothing can be done? These were just some of the thoughts and feelings I experienced during the following moments. Everything was a blur. A week or so later, and with a more positive mindset thanks to my husband, family and close friends, I went back to the doctor for the excision surgery. Once again, prayers were answered, we were in the clear and I did not need any further therapies.
As I sit here and write this, I am thankful that my skin check in January was a good one, no changes noted. But I will admit that I get that nauseous feeling when I think ahead to the next appointment in April. BUT I will be okay, no matter what happens. Melanoma is a part of my life but it is NOT going to control my life. I visit the dermatologist every three months for checkups and do self-checks as well as mole mapping (pictures) with the help of my husband. As a triathlete living on an island the majority of my training is outdoors. I have a daily routine of lathering up with sunscreen, carrying it on me to reapply during long training days, and wearing protective clothing like my TriSirena jersey and visor. I am very pale, but I rock it, and the scars on my body are a reminder every day of the battle I am winning. I don’t plan on losing.
My advice to anyone reading this is to make an appointment for a mole check with a dermatologist. Educate yourself on the ABCDE’s and the dangers of sun exposure. Always be observant of any changes happening in or on your body and NEVER ignore your symptoms. Take charge of your health – you have to take control by being good to your body and mind.
Written by Lynsey Capone-Smith
Follow Lynsey on Instagram! @rylyn.tri.hi