‘You should get that checked’. I kept hearing it. From literally everyone close to me. It was just a mole on my back. I’ve had it for years. But their concerns reminded me that moles can change from benign to cancerous and so the typical mental turmoil of a doctor began of knowing the probable answer but wanting to mitigate risk ensued. It played on my mentally for a while. I couldn’t really even see the mole in question and I thought any reaction in it was probably just inflammation from nearby folliculitis I’ve had a few times; either directly or due to scratching. Whether it was psychosomatic or not I did start to get some altered sensation where the mole was, so I got it checked.
My little pal Moley was Asymmetrical, had an irregular Border, two Colours i.e. shades of brown, was about 5mm in Diameter and had Evolved in some way. It fit the ABCDE criteria for a mole suspicious of melanoma and so the GP referred me to a Dermatologist. The Registrar took a look and got her Consultant in; they advised I needed melanoma surgery to remove the mole, just to be sure. 2 weeks later I was a doctor on the operating table. It’s a really odd feeling that you ought not to be unhealthy just because you understand the body.
I was so wrapped up in my busy life I didn’t even think about what the implications were of melanoma surgery. I had to keep it dry for 48 hours, only dab it dry after showers thereafter, and rub it with vaseline on a regular basis after a couple of weeks. Most annoyingly, I couldn’t exercise for 2 weeks while the stitches were in and another few days after they were removed, because excess stretching risked opening the wound as its location was central on my upper back. All this just as I was mentally ready to get my exercise routine restarted.
As frustrating as all of that was there are a number of lessons this whole cancer scare and melanoma surgery taught me:
Doctors are people too, just like everyone else
I worried about the possibility of melanoma, the most aggressive of skin cancers, to the extent that if I am honest with myself, I delayed getting it checked. As a doctor, it was not so much the diagnosis that scared me, it was knowing the gruelling treatment that might ensue as well as the potentially earth-shattering impact on my future and those around me. Truth be told I wasn’t even that meticulous with the wound care I was meant to be, just like many patients I know who don’t take their tablets!
Take things one step at a time
It is so easy to worry about these things too much. The reality of my situation was that I had a dodgy mole and a reasonable explanation as to why it became so. But worrying about the possible diagnosis never helped me through any aspect of my care. It was better to take each bit as it came: the GP appointment, the Dermatology appointment, the melanoma surgery itself, the wound care and the results letter. I could only ever deal with one of them at a time and certainly could not influence things in between.
Pain is subjective
The psychological nature of pain had never been so clear to me as after this melanoma surgery. I had never had any operations before this but it taught me a lot. The pain in my back where the hole was left behind the now-removed mole masked all of my other pain. I had niggles and twinges in my left shoulder, left knee and right hip but the back pain superseded all of that. Getting your mind right is a key ingredient to managing pain. I know that now from first hand experience.
Healing is an active process
My wound healed so well the nurse removing my stitches said she didn’t think I would scar at all. It didn’t just happen. I fed my body the ingredients for healing. I ate well, avoided junk food and used the time I wasn’t able to exercise to relax. It all adds up, every component of your lifestyle has a part to play in any healing.
Every negative experience is an opportunity for growth
Funnily enough, the pain meant I could not rest on my back. What it meant is that I had to sit up straight to avoid causing pain, which had the surprising benefit of improving my posture. I could have seen this as a huge negative to not be able to sit and relax. Instead I took the opportunity to improve my posture which is something I wanted to do for a long time.
It turns out that as I suspected I don’t have skin cancer; but the whole process was a surprising and steep learning curve about myself. I would encourage all of you to take a real look at your illness from every angle, you might learn something. And if you want a guide through that journey, come and work with me at Hippocrates’ Lounge