Recently I was invited to speak by The Promise Foundation at my middle school about skin cancer awareness and my personal battle with Melanoma last year.  I’ve decided to post my talk on my blog to spread the wealth of information I have in hopes of saving another life.

Hello everyone and good morning. It’s so great to be back in the very middle school I went to, GW. A lot of things are the same, yet a lot has changed. The auditorium is exactly as I remember it, yet I had to buzz to get into the building. You and I were probably the similar type of student: If I could go to an assembly during the school day, I’d be pretty happy to have the opportunity to miss class. But the difference is, when I was at GW, we didn’t learn about things like skin cancer in school assemblies. Skin cancer wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today, when roughly 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer over the course of a lifetime.

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After about five days in a helmet, I went to the doctor’s bright and early before my first day of my new job. He removed the helmet and put on a smaller bandage from my scalp to my chin. It was well-covered by my hair, so all of my new coworkers wouldn’t notice.

The doctor was confident it would heal really well, and the pathologist on the surgery did frozen slides, and I had clean borders. He is very thorough though, so he took more samples back to his lab where he stains them and does these other tests that are more accurate. The pathologist wouldn’t know for another week if I was cancer-free, or if it had spread, or how bad it was. Now was just a waiting/healing game. After a few days, I was able to take the last bandage off.

Really, there’s just a pink mark on the side of my face that looks like a big birthmark but will eventually look like my skin. Behind my ear is a scar that is healing. My hair covers all of this. But my new conversation starter is “Wanna see my cancer?” I mean…it is sort of fascinating to look at when you know the extent of the surgery.

Two weeks later, I found out I was cancer-free.

So pretty little melanoma, if you ever knew anything about me, you’d have never entered my territory, because I always win.

C-Story, Part V

After about two and a half hours, the surgery part was done. My dad was back. My head was wrapped in bandages. Lots of cotton and tape and gauze that basically formed a football helmet. I was woozy. The nurse went over the post-op care with me, and then my dad and I walked out to my mom. Mom grabbed me because I was walking oddly. It was a beautiful summer day. How I would miss the summer sun.

We went home, and Dad went to pick up my antibiotics and then came over to Mom’s to drop them off. She invited him in for coffee and surprisingly, he stayed. We sat in the living room while my divorced parents reminisced/caught up/laughed. This was kind of amazing—not their civil attitudes, though that, too—but their ability to have a conversation like old friends rather than exes with shared parenting responsibilities. I have friends who have divorced parents that remain friendly. Mine, for the most part, have not.

Anyway after that, my younger brother Will came home from caddying. He and my mother totally spoiled me. Mom went to the store and bought the current issue of every single magazine for me (I’m a magazine editor because of my childhood obsession), and maybe eight different kinds of ice cream.

The three of us watched episode upon episode of “Damages.” Will was totally attentive to me like my mom, somewhat out of character for him. “Can I get you something? Water? A blanket?” Like he clearly wanted to help me but didn’t know what to do. I’m like, “Bro, relax. I’m cool.” He cooked dinner for the three of us, and it looked and smelled fantastic, but I started violently vomiting so I wasn’t able to have it.

Since I haven’t gotten sick like that for 10 years, I was disturbed, but felt much better once it was over. I went to bed. Around 7am, I noticed I was bleeding through all of the bandaging. (And for the disgusting full-disclosure record, had been losing a lot of blood elsewhere all week.) I called the doctor at home; he’d made it clear that if anything was suspect to contact him immediately. He thought the bleeding was probably normal, but he wanted me to come in just to be sure.

The pressure to my head from the vomiting instigated the profuse outpouring of blood, so he re-bandaged the wound in a way that applied more pressure. It was completely uncomfortable and cut off a lot of my circulation, causing these marks on my neck and in the words of my mom and brother, “Your face looks really fat.” Thanks, guys. I really wanted to kill my worried family for making me go through this. If it were up to me, I would have let nature take its course. In a way, I hated the confidence of the doctor, because it tricked me into believing that the surgery would be no big deal and I could get back to my routine the day after.

Cancer, meh. I was more likely to die from the trauma of getting it removed. I can’t believe I lived through that.

To be continued…

C-Story Part IV

I couldn’t see all of the carving into my face, but I could hear everything. It’s so comforting when you hear your surgeon say, “Can you pass me the larger pair of scissors?” Yes, there was a lot of tool changing, and these tools were obviously extremely sharp objects. I could hear the snip snip snip of those scissors. Even though I’m fairly deaf due to my iPod obsession, the cutting was right next to my ear; it was kind of impossible to tune out. I kept thinking, Really?! My face is not a piece of fabric…

Then there was the burning of my skin. I could smell that. Yes, apparently they burn you too. Thanks for the warning. I later learned it’s called cautery and is used to coagulate the blood (stop the bleeding). The burning of my face smelled profusely awesome.

Then there was the pulling. Pulling my skin to stretch to see if maybe there was a chance they didn’t have to remove from behind my ear, or more likely just to see how far it would go. Even with novocaine, I could feel that. And the blood…oh, the blood. I could feel that pouring down the back of my neck like hot lava. Novocaine just wasn’t enough.

My dad had to leave after an hour because he had to go operate on one of his patients. After that, they gave me a shot of demerol. That helped a little when they dove into the back of my ear. More cutting. I could still feel the blood.

The best part was, all the doctors and attendees were joking and gossiping the whole time about other surgeons and how much money the other guys made and what cars they drove. All I could think was, Are you paying attention to my face? It was just business as usual for them. In a weird way, I think this chatter may have relaxed me a bit.

More cutting and pulling and then finally, sewing. More blood pouring down my neck. I just don’t understand why I never get the good drugs or get to be put to sleep. I have a very high tolerance for pain and an even higher one for painkillers. At the time, I thought, “I might die of cancer, can I please be knocked out for this??”

To be continued…

C-Story Part III

The new idea consisted of an oculo-plastic surgeon, whom my father had operated with many times. Dr. K is the best in his specialization, and this played itself out in the absurd yet intent way he immediately grabbed my face after saying hi and turned it to the side.

Ever since that moment, Dr. K became obsessed with the side of my face, and he’d always talk to me from there. It was a bit odd how all of our conversations involved not looking at each other, but me looking straight ahead and he zeroed in at my ear. I got used to it quickly, as he is a complete genius, and as with most of them, he’s a little zany.

The other part of my father’s new idea equation involved having the best pathologist on site for the entire procedure. He is only in New Jersey one day a month. I got him for the next day that he’d be in town, and that dictated the day my surgery would be, rearranging the schedules of both my surgeon and his assistants, and in effect, other patients who needed to be seen or operated on. It really pays off to know people in the medical field.

This meant that while Dr. K was operating, the pathologist would be studying samples so my surgeon (hopefully) would be able to take out a less of my face/ear than required. I would still have to get the back of my ear removed and grafted to the side of my face (there is a problem with youth: skin is not elastic enough to stretch very far, and in my case, the area that needed to be removed was too much), but “After it eventually heals,” in the words of the brilliant Dr. K, “No one will ever know.”

I finally felt comfortable about surgery; the men made it seem like no big deal. I would stop waking up in the middle of the night crying. It also didn’t hurt that all of the lovely ladies at my previous workplace (where I was still going in to help out here and there) were extremely confident that this would be an easy surgery, and the C would be done with. Without having any family around (and by that I mean near my house), and with both of my roommates MIA, I was scared shitless. For the first time, I hated being alone and having no one to talk to. Nothing ever scares me—nothing like this anyway—and I NEVER cry, except one particular day a year. Sometimes the people you least expect to be there for you are present when you need support the most. I’ll be forever grateful to F, N, and T.

The day of surgery dawned bright and beautiful. I was up at 5am to get to my hometown by my 7am appointment. I was happy to be going home, and later, relaxed because I was given a valium to take 45 minutes before the procedure.

Both of my parents were there, and my father was allowed to come into the operating room with me. Thank the Lord for that, because this was anything but pleasant.

I don’t care what drugs anyone gives you to relax, or how many shots of novocaine you receive—when you are awake and mentally present and people are carving into your face, you will probably freak out a little bit. I’m glad my dad was there; he held my hand and I squeezed out my anxiety into it as tears silently rolled down my face.

To be continued…

C-Story Part II

I went home to Dad’s house and we both immediately had a drink. We sat down at the table; it was time to think of a strategic plan of attack. He was examining the pathology report, furiously researching on the iPad. (Even brilliant doctors have more to learn when it comes to basic things in other fields.)

The very first thing I had to do was call my mother. She was in Maine on a conducting sabbatical with very limited time and very limited cell service, so I was surprised she picked up. As soon as she heard the word “Cancer,” we were in trouble. I handed the phone to Dad; he knew how to explain everything. I actually didn’t even listen to what the doctor had said in my state of shock. And I didn’t want to hear her cry.

He talked to her and calmed her down a bit. Marian came home, and we continued talking about what to do. M and Dad discussed the plastic surgeons in their building. Marian decided that I should go with one of the guys because he was a bit better; plus, this Dr. B owed her a favor for something she helped him out with in the surgery center. She called the main line, and the lady at the front desk said they couldn’t see me for two weeks, and that would only be for a consultation. Not good enough for these adults.

No worries. Marian had him on her cell. She shot him a text, I got bumped to his next available surgery slot, which was a week and a half later, but before I was slated to start my new job—yes, these things always happen at the wrong time.

All was good. I went home and slept. I woke up crying. I got over it. I went to work and was feeling normal again until my cell started blowing up. “When can you get off work today?” It was my father. “He said he can do the surgery at 5.”

I hadn’t even had 24 hours to process everything, but who wants to process this kind of thing anyway? “I’ll be there,” I said.

I went to Dr. B’s, and he drew those purple marks around the amount he would have to remove. This would involve taking out a decent chunk of my ear. He would definitely have to do a skin graft, taking it from my chest, because my skin was too young to stretch. The problem was my inner ear and the complications with removing that. Dr. B took several pictures and said that he wanted to discuss this with his plastic surgeon friends. This was not going to be a lift and stretch and sew in-office procedure. No surgery today, and it would be much worse when it did happen. For all I knew, I would be deformed and not be able to hear.

I told Dad I didn’t want surgery. He wanted to go out to dinner, but I just wanted to stop talking about this. I went home.

The next morning, Dad called again. “I have another idea.”  And this was still only the beginning.

To be continued…


On Father’s Day, after playing golf with the fam, we were at Dad’s for dinner and Marian was immediately concerned that I get the spot on my face checked. Marian was very persistent, and this is why I very, very reluctantly (because I no longer had health insurance at the time) went to the doctor—for the first of what would be many times.

The last derm I saw (two summers ago) didn’t even think said spot was worthy of biopsing, so I didn’t give it another thought. Her Park Avenue building rent should be worth something on top of all of her education. A precise example of why I don’t trust anyone, especially doctors other than my father, who is indisputably brilliant. He was suspicious, but hadn’t really noticed until Marian pointed it out, and after that night she was constantly contacting me about making the appointment to get it checked.

The dermatologist in D and M’s building (and a fairly good one), again, thought it was nothing, but since that was my their main reason for me going, he biopsied it after a full body check.

A week later, I was scheduled to get the stitch out and the pathology results, but I almost skipped the appointment,  because my dad could remove the stitch on my own time (so I wouldn’t have to miss work) and it was nothing, right? Well, my father said to keep the appt.

He walked in with me (and thank God he did). The assistant took out the stitch. My father asked her if the pathology report came in. A long pause later, she said, “Yes. The doctor will come in to talk to you about that.”

F**k. That was when I knew something was wrong (which I guess my father was pretty much sure of anyway).

I always called it my cancer, I knew it was something for some time, but I didn’t care since no one in the derm field seemed to think it was worth more than beyond a spot (there was one other doc before these two, when this really was just a spot). Why should I have better intuition about my own body than what people who study years in their respective fields tell me about my body?

It made perfect sense in my mind when I heard it was Melanoma…yet I was still in a state of shock, because this was the third dermatologist to say it was most likely nothing. I was beyond relaxed about it at that point.

Good thing Dad was there because I mentally checked out. Besides, he speaks “medical” and could read all of the reports and explain everything to me later, scientifically and extensively, yet in terms I could understand. As he did, and did, and did in the flurry of craziness that ensued after.

To be continued…