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My melanoma survival story: What it’s like to be diagnosed with skin cancer

When you are young, you feel invincible. You feel that no matter what your parents say to you—like advising you to wear sunscreen and stay out of the sun—you know better.  Afterall, it is your body and you tell yourself, “oh, it’ll never happen to me.” Until it did.

On April 17, 2021, I received the call that completely stopped me in my tracks and turned my whole family’s world upside down. “You have stage 2b malignant melanoma.”

I remember my heart racing and my stomach sinking at the same time, as all of my unhealthy sun habits flashed before my eyes. I felt scared, alone and yet optimistic all at once.

This is my melanoma survival story.

“I can’t change the past, but I wish I could go back and tell my younger naïve self what I know now.”

I had been watching a mole on my leg for a couple years change. It started small and regular, but over a couple years, turned dark black and was raised in profile. The shape became abnormal and grew into the size of a popcorn kernel. I knew about the ABCs of moles from my studies in high school and college as a biology major, so I kept an eye on this one closely. 

I knew it was time to get an expert opinion. In April 2021, I went to see Dr. Alan Menter after getting a referral from my new primary care physician. Dr. Menter looked at my mole and decided to take a biopsy because he “didn’t like it.”

One routine mole check revealed more than I ever thought I would have to face at 41 years old. I felt a heavy fear that I’ve never had before take over my body during the two weeks while I waited, praying for negative results. On April 17, I received that dreaded phone call from Dr. Menter’s nurse telling me about my cancer and going over various options and letting me know she would be sending in a referral for a surgical oncologist at Baylor Scott & White, Dr. Christine Landry

Another few weeks went by before I could see Dr. Landry, whose staff immediately calmed my anxieties and bent over backwards to get me in quickly. I knew I would need surgery on my leg and it would be a larger excision “to the margins” because of the depth of the melanoma. Dr. Landry also suggested we do a sentinel lymph node biopsy to ensure the melanoma had not metastasized to my lymph nodes. She patiently answered all my questions and concerns and got me booked for surgery June 2, 2021. 

After four appointments, one surgery and one sentinel lymph node biopsy, I found out the good news—the melanoma was removed from my chest and the tests indicated the cancer hadn’t spread to my organs. I am one of the fortunate ones who received good news and the cancer was caught early through treatment.

However, my life is forever changed from this melanoma diagnosis.

This diagnosis was difficult to hear but it is even more difficult to think of all the things I could have done to prevent it. Before I took charge of my skincare and sun routines in my late 20s, I was a member at a local tanning studio where I would tan frequently for several years. When I was in my teens, I foolishly used cooking spray and baby oil out by the pool because that is what my friends were doing, and it gave me the result I was looking for. My mom advised me to apply sunscreen if I was going to be out a while but was not pushy about it like I am with my two sons. So, while I heard her, I did not heed her warnings. 

It wasn’t until I started to notice hyperpigmentation and other sunspots crop up during pregnancy that I made a vow to change my habits and started to really care about taking care of my skin and being careful with my sun exposure. No longer would I spend time outside without sunscreen, instead for that “sun kissed” look I would spray tan twice a week. The challenge was finding a mineral sunscreen my skin could tolerate, as I was allergic to many of the ingredients in the sunscreens. 

I can’t change the past, but I wish I could go back and tell my younger naïve self what I know now. Today, I can say I’m a melanoma survivor, but I still have and will have anxiety about it coming back. There is a chance of skin cancer recurrence for the rest of my life, and new skin cancers can pop up at any time as well.

Since my diagnosis in April, I have to go to a routine skin check every three months. At my most recent check, there was at least two moles removed for additional testing. These skin checks are anxiety-inducing and I relive the fear and worry all over again every single time.

I don’t think there’s anything to gain keeping this experience to myself. That’s why I’m sharing my story with you today.

We all had or will have seasons of life like this. Times that feel impossible, unbearable or unfair. But they pass and then you’re left with a battle scar that will tell a story. No matter what kind you have, any type of cancer diagnosis takes both a physical and emotional toll on one’s body.

From this experience, my perspective on health and beauty is forever shifted. My heart is forever thankful for all the people who have been with me through this, providing constant support, prayers and encouragement every step of the way.

I never thought I would have to go through this journey, but skin cancer doesn’t discriminate. So, moving forward, I use my story to make others aware of their most important and largest organ—their skin. We only have one body, so we have to take care of it now.

This story was contributed by inspiring melanoma survivor, Gina Farmer.

My melanoma survival story: What it’s like to be diagnosed with skin cancer