Red haired woman with sponge like item stitched on her forehead.

Mom Reveals Realities of Skin Cancer With Before and After Photos

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If you were to look at Bethany Greenway now, you’d think she was just like any other mom. However, Greenway’s spent the past year in treatment for two types of skin cancer, which she chronicled on Facebook in a photo album called “Melanoma Photo Diary.

In 2014, Greenway first saw what she thought was a liver spot on her head. Not only was the spot a bit alarming, the constant aching she experienced was as well. Knowing that her mother had stage 1B melanoma in her 30s, Greenway had her spot looked at, but was told it was benign. Two years later, in 2016, she received the devastating news.

woman with melanoma cancer pointing to mole on forehead

“I remember that my plastic surgeon called on a Thursday, just after my father-in-law took my oldest child swimming at the neighborhood pool,” Greenway told The Mighty. “The doctor asked if I was sitting down because we needed to have a serious conversation.”

That’s when her surgeon told her, after finally getting biopsy results from several different labs, she had two different types of cancer. The mole on her forehead was desmoplastic melanoma, and the bigger spot on her forehead was melanoma.

Greenway was soon put in touch with an oncologist and had her first of two surgeries in August 2016. One surgery consisted of a skin graft — where skin from her thigh was put on her forehead — and the second surgery consisted of removing five millimeters of the lower half of her surrounding skin.

She then decided to chronicle her journey, from diagnosis through current treatment, on Facebook. You can see some photos below.

Recovering from her first surgery.

woman with melanoma cancer in hospital bed

Introducing her medicated compression bandage, which she calls “SpongeBob’s Asshole.”

woman with melanoma cancer with compression sponge on head

Getting SpongeBob removed and meeting “Bacon.”

woman with melanoma recovering after surgery

Starting the healing process.

woman with melanoma cancer with bandage on head

Lying in a hospital bed the morning before her second surgery.

woman with melanoma cancer with bandage on head in hospital bed

Healing after the second surgery.

woman with melanoma cancer close up of head scar

First time going out after surgery.

woman with melanoma cancer close up makeup

Feeling frustrated.

woman with melanoma cancer head wrap

Being tired.

woman with melanoma cancer feeling tired

Finding three remaining eyebrow hairs.

woman with melanoma cancer pointing to eyebrows

Feeling like a dragon after radiation treatment.

woman with melanoma cancer close up of radiation treatment

And getting more biopsies.

woman with melanoma cancer getting biopsy

Throughout her journey, one thing Greenway said keeps her grounded is the love she has for her daughters, whom she makes a point to have “special dates” with every day.

“The girls get to choose what type of activity we do. It’s a time for us to reconnect and for me to slow down for a moment each day. Vegging out and cuddling with them makes life so much easier.”

woman with melanoma cancer with kids

Greenway also credits staying active with helping her through treatments. What started as a 2K swim at Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas then led to a 5K swim at Lake Travis (where she swam during her second pregnancy), and then to another 2K swim again.

Then, after jokingly suggesting to start a triathlon team with a few friends from The Shade Project (a nonprofit dedicated to preventing skin cancer), they actually took her up on the offer and created one. She just completed her second relay triathlon this past week.

woman with melanoma cancer at triathlon

Greenway hopes that sharing her photo diary will inspire others to do the same, but also keep them educated about the dangers of skin cancer.

woman with melanoma cancer with cool haircut

Her words of wisdom: “Listen to and take care of your body, and pay attention to the changes it makes.”

To see more of Greenway’s melanoma photo diary, follow her on Facebook.

For more stories like this, like Cancer on The Mighty on Facebook.

All photos courtesy of Bethany Greenway

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My Skin Cancer Scar Has a Story to Tell

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The scar is thick, pink and prominent. It stands out — literally. It is a raised scar, larger than the original wound — a keloid scar, the doctors call it, as they remind me I can undergo surgery at any time if I want to “fix” it (I don’t). I love to run my fingertips along it, feel the ridges where the stitches were, feel the smooth not-quite-softness. The reminder of what happened and what is yet to come.

I love making people guess how I got the scar because they never get it right. Sometimes I want to lie when they ask for the real story. Their versions (motorcycle accident, shark bite, alien parasite embedded under my skin) are always more creative and exciting than the truth.

When I tell people the scar’s actual origin, I have to watch their faces fall. I have to accept their pity, concern, even fear — because the scar didn’t come from something outside of me. It came from inside. From cancer.

Melanoma, to be specific. Stage IIA, which means it had extended just a bit further than 2 millimeters below my skin. As Texas Oncology explains, my cancer “had spread to the lower part of the inner layer of skin (dermis), but not into the tissue below the dermis or into nearby lymph nodes.”

That last part is important — if the cancer had spread to my lymph node, it would have reached stage III or IV. I would have had to undergo chemotherapy. My survival chances would have dropped from 67 percent to as low as 10 percent.

But I was very lucky. When she visited me in the summer of 2014, my mom took one clear-eyed look at the mole on my arm and told me to see a dermatologist. Thanks to her and to my doctors, we caught the cancer early. It hadn’t yet spread. I was going to be OK.

The doctors confirmed this by performing a sentinel node biopsy. The sentinel node is the lymph node closest to the spot where the cancer was detected — in my case, the lymph node in my right armpit. Previously I thought lymph nodes only existed on each side of the throat, where they swelled uncomfortably whenever I had a cold. But it turns out we have lymph nodes all over, working to keep us healthy but vulnerable to any cancer cells that might make their way up and down the rivers of the body.

A lymph node is a sort of hub — if cancer makes it there, it’s about to make it to the rest of the body, too.

To make sure this hadn’t happened to me, the doctors removed a thin slice of the lymph node in my armpit at the same time they removed the cancer in my arm. But first, nurses “stained” the node so the doctors could see if any cancer had spread to it. They did this by injecting ink directly into the lymph node, by way of an enormous needle.

For reasons I still don’t fully understand, this had to happen without anesthesia. Laying back on the hospital bed, I squeezed my hands into fists, digging my nails into my palms. I didn’t make a sound as pain roared through me.

“Wow,” one of the nurses said, after she removed the needle. “You handled that really well.”

“Really?” I said, blinking back tears.

She nodded. “A lot of people scream.”

I gave out one harsh, short laugh, flooded briefly with pride and a sense of superiority over all those other, “weaker” cancer patients.

Then, I felt terrible again.

There are a lot of ways I talk about my cancer, both to strangers and loved ones. All of them make up only part of the truth. I’m so lucky — I am — because they caught it super early and my parents’ insurance paid for almost everything. I didn’t even have to do chemo, and I got a badass scar out of it.

Just before and after the surgery, I refused to even discuss the issue by its real name; instead, I said the word “melanoma” with the tune and emphasis of the Muppets song “Manamana” — “muh-LA-nuh-muh, do-doo doo-do-doo.” With friends from home I joke with political self-deprecation that skin cancer was just the natural consequence of growing up as a white person, a haole, in sunny Hawai’i, a place where people like me were never meant to settle like we did, anyway. It’s a joke, an inconvenience, a cute song, and one tiny consequence among many huge injustices resulting from the American overthrow and annexation of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. These are all valid ways to talk about my cancer.

But there is another truth I rarely voice: I fear my body now.

I got cancer at 22 years old. My instinct is so strong it feels like fact: it’s going to come back.

Melanoma is the result of cumulative, irreversible damage done to the skin by UV rays — AKA, the sunlight that blessed my childhood in Hawai’i. Somehow, despite my parents constantly reminding me to use sunscreen, despite the hats and sun shirts and indoor kid tendencies — somehow, in just 22 years, my skin endured enough damage to turn cancerous.

As my life continues, my body will only see more sun. The damage will only grow. And I have this fear that the cancer will come back.

Here again the “I’m so lucky” mantra kicks in: after all, knowing my risks means I can stay vigilant and catch it early if it does. I can be informed, aware, vigilant. Melanoma is one of the deadliest cancers once it spreads, but if you catch it early it’s among the most treatable. The doctors can literally scoop it out of you: it’s only skin-deep.

I am no stranger to dermatologists. Back in middle school, before I ever understood that I could get cancer (although my father, uncle, and great-grandmother had all battled it), I hated my skin for different reasons. I always had at least one swollen, painful zit that just wouldn’t pop, and my nose was so red that classmates nicknamed me Rudolph. I obsessed over — and hated — my appearance every time I passed a reflective surface.

Seeing how upset I was over my acne, my mother and grandmother decided to take me to a dermatologist. I didn’t tell them this at the time, but going to the “zit doctor,” as I mentally called him, made everything so much worse. The visits were painful; they involved needles and liquid nitrogen and they never seemed to improve anything. This is how ugly I am, I thought. A doctor has to treat me for it.

Back then, I thought chronic breakouts were the worst thing the outer surface of my body could do to me. But now “bad skin” has a more sinister meaning.

In bed, in the shower, in front of mirrors, I examine every part of my body I can see. Shortly after the surgery that saved me and gave me the scar, I thought I saw something. I was soaping my legs in the shower when something dark red and angry-looking revealed itself just past the curve of my calf. Its sudden appearance frightened me so badly I nearly fell, and as I threw out my hands to catch myself, the thing disappeared.

It had only been my fingertip, turned unfamiliar by the heat of the water and my fresh fear.

I am still afraid. Any freckle or mole that looks a bit too dark or asymmetrical, too big or too different, could mark a recurrence of cancer. I run my fingertips over my skin to feel for bumps; melanoma can sometimes manifest without color, burrowing invisible and deep. Whenever I find a suspicious spot, I circle it with a ballpoint pen and take a picture, saving it on my phone so I remember to ask the doctor about it.

This obsessive examination of my own body feels like middle school again, except this time it’s necessary. It is, ostensibly, a healthy thing to do.

It does not feel healthy.

I love my scar. I do. The texture, the stories it helps me collect, the way its color changes with the temperature and my heart rate, ranging from the same soft pink as the inside of my lips to an angry stand-out red. It’s a physical reminder of what I’ve survived. And it’s an odd comfort — my scar is the one place the cancer won’t come back. The one patch of skin that has already been through the worst and come out OK — better, even, because it looks pretty damn cool.

After years of working to accept and celebrate my body, my scar is the only part of my appearance that is easy for me to love.

The rest of my skin scares me. Where will the next scar be? Will I be lucky enough to get away with surgery again, or will I have to undergo chemotherapy? Sometimes I get melodramatic. Sometimes I feel certain I’ll die before I reach 50. That something inside me will eat me up, take me from my life and my family far too early.

I was 22 when it came, and I’m nearly 24 now. I go out at night sometimes, and if it’s warm, I wear short sleeves. Boys run their hands up my arm and stop when they feel it. I’ve learned to tilt my head, eyes half-lidded, and tell them with a smile to guess how I got it. It’s a game. It’s a test. Sometimes I allow myself a joke at their expense, and let these boys (I never do this to the girls I meet) think their guess is right.

And I am easily seduced by my own lie. It’s easy, it’s funny, we’re young and yeah, something bad happened and it left a strange mark — but now it’s over. It’s done.

The next morning, though, I always put on my sunscreen. Daylight demands I be honest and watchful. If I am lucky, this will buy me some time. A whole lifetime, I hope. If I am lucky, given enough time, these fears of mine may even fade.

But for now, after working so long against hating my own skin, I need to be scared of it. For now, that’s what keeps me vigilant. That’s what keeps me alive.

This post originally appeared on HelloGiggles.

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Thinkstock photo by Image Source Pink

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Why You Don’t Always Have to Be Strong to Survive Cancer

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The most common metaphor used to describe having cancer is the “fight.” We are fighting cancer. And, really, that makes sense. Cancer cells grow, and we do whatever it takes to kill them. There is a protagonist and an antagonist, and they are in direct conflict. Our bodies are a battleground, and there are plenty of casualties along the way. We lose our hair, hearing, bone mass, breasts, ovaries, testicles, appendages, relationships, libidos… I could go on.

And sometimes, in the bloodiest battles, there are fatalities. See how relevant this metaphor is? It’s hard to think of it in any other way.

People sometimes use the “journey” metaphor. “You’ve come so far in your cancer journey.” It’s not as aggressive as the battle metaphor, but it’s so bland and trite and saccharine. Fighting feels more pro-active; it gives the illusion of having some semblance of control. The fight battle metaphor gets tricky, though, when we think in terms of “winning = strong” and “losing = weak.”

I mean, the stronger opponent wins, right? But does that mean when cancer wins, it’s because we were weak… or not strong enough… or didn’t fight hard enough? Fuck no. Of course it doesn’t.

You don’t die from cancer because you weren’t strong enough. You die from cancer because cancer is a fucking asshole.

female cancer survivor up close

People tell me all the time how strong I am (and, yeah, I am fucking strong  —  and I’m glad I learned that about myself and I’m glad people see that). But when you’ve impressed people with how well you’ve handled being sick, it makes it that much harder to show your weakness.

You start to wonder if they’ll see you differently. Will they begin to forget you were ever strong? Will they become uncomfortable around you? Will they resent you for making them feel bad? Will they no longer be proud of you? Will they begin to feel guilty for being healthy when they’re around you? Will they, deep down, wish you’d stop complaining about your fucking cancer?

Strength is easy to champion; weakness is harder to get behind. It’s harder to talk about. But it exists nonetheless.

Before my diagnosis, it took a lot to make me cry. Now I cry all the time at things happening around me. But when I cry for myself, it’s usually in the shower. It’s in that solitary moment I can indulge in feeling sorry for myself. I can get mad at my body for it’s constant… fucking… betrayal. I can be sad about the side effects of treatment without having to add at the end, “But at least I’m alive!” to lighten the mood.

I don’t need perspective in that moment. I don’t need encouragement. I don’t need answers. I don’t need coping suggestions. I need to love myself in my weakness.

I wish it was as easy to be vulnerable as it is to be strong. I wish more people understood the strength that can come when you allow yourself to be weak. I wish I could understand that myself  —  not just rationally, but emotionally, too. I wish weakness was more acceptable.

Maybe it’s up to us to make it so.

So, I’m going to continue to be proud of the strength I discovered in myself as a cancer survivor. I’m probably even going to keep telling other survivors I admire their strength  —  because we are stuck running this awful gauntlet and haven’t been knocked off, and that’s fucking impressive.

But I’m also going to challenge myself to allow for weakness too and to not hide it as if there’s something wrong with it. Because I think we sometimes need to give ourselves permission to not have to always be a “super survivor” — the very bastion of strength.

female cancer survivor laughing

It’ll take time, but, you know, cancer is a journey, after all.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

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Thinkstock photo by kieferpix

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Why I Take Nothing for Granted After My Cancer Diagnosis

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Now that it has been a little over a month since my cancer surgery, I have had time to reflect on the entire experience. From the time I found out I had skin cancer in January, until right now, I haven’t cried. I think it’s because I was trying to convince everyone else I was going to be fine.

One of the hardest things I had to do was to continue to tell my son, Dominic, I would be OK even though I really didn’t know.

It was difficult for my daughter, Lauren, because she was away at college and couldn’t come home.

My husband was so strong through all of this. He was never negative. He kept everything positive the entire time.

I relied on my faith during this time. I told three priests about my cancer and one of them anointed me with oil. The feeling of calmness after he did that was incredibly powerful. When things are out control, sometimes the only thing I can do is pray.

The amount of support I received from my family and friends was tremendous. I had so many people reach out to me, both publicly and privately, and I feel blessed to have such a huge support system. I told a lot of people about my diagnosis, not because I wanted to be the center of attention, but because I want people to know when getting a full body exam, to look for suspicious moles, then everything I went through feels worth it. Malignant Melanoma is a very serious and deadly cancer.

I have had people tell me I am “lucky.” I do feel very thankful. I am thankful the cancer was caught early. I am thankful it hadn’t spread. I was extremely thankful I only had to drive one hour to receive treatment. I had reconciled in my own head that if I was going to die, I was ready to go. Thank goodness it wasn’t my “time.”

About a year and half ago, my dad had a massive stroke. He and I have had lots of discussions about what he went through and what I just went through, and how it was similar. He came up with one word that describes what are lives are now. That word is gift. We have been given the gift of extra time. That is something no one should ever take for granted.

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Thinkstock image by ookawaphoto

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Revisiting My Cancer Journal, 30 Years Later

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When I was diagnosed with brain cancer as a young adult, I remember thinking, “What would I do if I could survive 10 more years? How would I change? Who would I become?” As my treatment progressed, I tried to answer these questions through journaling. Now 30 years after my diagnosis, I used the anniversary to look back at what I wrote.

One thing I found is that I wasn’t concerned with writing beautiful essays or eloquent entries filled with imagery. Instead I was a list-maker. My old notebooks are filled with my ideas about how I planned to create a better, healthier, version of myself. As it became clear that my treatment was working and that I really might have 10 more years, or 20, or even 30, I rebuilt my life with these bullet points in my journal as my guide—my insights and objectives; the words of inspiration I heard, read, or discovered within myself; the emotions I held in my heart that I poured out on the page; my limiting beliefs that I aimed to shed and those aspects of myself I wanted to change.

Here are some of the things I wrote:

1. Believe there is enough time.

After my diagnosis, I couldn’t shake the idea that I wouldn’t have enough time to do everything I wanted to do—whether in my whole life, or within each single day. I loved life (and still do!) and have so much to accomplish. It wasn’t until I began to realize that “not having enough time” was just a construct—just a belief I could change­—that I stopped rushing to cram so much into every day and starting accepting my experiences and accomplishments for what they were. When I stopped rushing, I found that every experience had more meaning—that these things I could have rushed past held far more richness than the next hurried thing I had been rushing toward. By slowing down and sometimes doing less, I got more.

2. Allow yourself to be selfish.

Cancer allowed me, for the first time in my life, to focus on myself. Cancer gave me permission to say, “I’m important” and to say “no” when I needed. I let myself “eat dessert first” and not feel guilty about it. Now in my life after cancer, I try to realize I still have the right to make myself a priority. It took being sick to let myself come first.

3. Being positive is not being “up” all the time.

At first, I coped with my cancer diagnosis the same way I coped with other difficulties in my life: By not letting myself feel my emotions. I had to rally, be in charge, solve the problem, stay positive! Eventually, through my journey, I learned that being positive wasn’t just about being happy or strong. For me, being “positive” meant realizing that I could impact the course of my disease. When I finally let the tears come, that’s when my emotional healing started.

4. Put yourself “out there.”

I know firsthand how isolating illness and the emotional recovery from illness can be. Without letting others know what you need or what you think or feel, all they can do is guess. And they usually guess wrong. Being yourself—being real—gives people something to relate to and draws them in. I desperately needed this connection during my cancer journey, and putting myself out there as myself was the only way to find it.

5. Define the meaning of illness.

At some point, many people facing health challenges ask, “Why me?” I know I did. In fact, I love this question because it’s a doorway into exploring the things illness can actually bring to your life. For me, my cancer gave me freedom to choose the life I wanted to live. My mission became to know myself well enough to be who I am in the world. And from that day, I have sought to understand the complexity of who I am and what makes me, me so that I can be authentic in my relationships and my life. My cancer experience helped me to discover what “me” meant in the first place.

It’s hard to believe I began my fight against brain cancer 30 years ago. Now as I look back at what I wrote, I truly believe that the process of introspection I set down in my cancer journal has helped me. Today, cancer remains a part of my identity, and I am proud of it. While it forced me to change, it also provided the opportunity to rebuild myself with consciousness and intention—to free myself from who I had been so that I could become who I am.

Sheri Brisson is founder of the site DiggingDeep.org.

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How Grief Can Resurface With a Second Loved One Facing Cancer

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The day before my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, my father, Bill, broke his arm. What may seem like a simple, common injury, was not for my “larger than life” dad. For him, a broken arm was the beginning of an almost four year battle with multiple myeloma. My father fought through chemo, radiation, platelet infusions and even a stem-cell transplant. Devastatingly, we lost my dad on April 4, 2012.

Our family trudged through our first holiday without our patriarch only four days after my dad died. One of my nephews had his first-communion only weeks later. There was an empty chair at my oldest nephew’s high school graduation where my father should have been sitting, proud of his oldest grandson preparing to head off to college on a Division 1 golf scholarship. One of the biggest reminders he was gone, for me anyway, came in July of 2014 when I gave birth to my first child, Bill’s fifth grandson. I named him William, after his Grankie, the man he would never get to meet. The man who would have given him sweets after I said no. The man who would have let him have cake for breakfast during camping trips in the big RV. The man who would have loved him with a strength that moved heaven and earth.

You find a way to deal with the reminders. They don’t hurt less, but they become part of your new normal. It’s little things that hit you in ways you can’t explain. Sometimes, you’re walloped with grief and it sends you reeling backward so hard, you feel your breath escape your lungs and your stomach turn up in knots.

Hearing your 43-year-old brother say the words, “I have cancer,” can shake you to your still fractured, still healing core.

There was a certain ignorance I had when my father was diagnosed. First of all, I’d never even heard of multiple myeloma. It wasn’t bone cancer or leukemia or any other kind I had a passing familiarity with. Second, this was the first time my family had to navigate such a diagnosis. We had known people with cancer before, but they were friends or relatives that didn’t live nearby. While everyone is aware of how deadly cancer can be, I had never seen the effects up close and personal, and I don’t think it’s possible to understand them until you’ve watched a loved one deal with the constant sickness and pain that comes with the disease and its treatment. My father never let his family know how sick he truly was or what the doctors were telling him in terms of how his cancer was advancing, or how grim his prognosis had become. We thought he had a good chance of survivial and his decline took us all by surprise. His death came quickly after we learned the truth.

With a second loved one’s diagnosis, there is no ignorance. You are incredibly aware of the possibilities, sometimes so aware that all the possible “what ifs?” hit you so hard you feel bruised.

Fortunately (ironic using that word in relation to having cancer), my brother’s prognosis is good. We live in an area with amazing medical care that includes top hospitals in the country. People come from all over to seek help and we only have to drive 45 minutes. The oncologist believes my brother can avoid surgery, and chemo and radiation can get him cancer free. Treatment is going to be rough, though, and all the side-effects are to be expected: hair loss, nausea, feeding tube, etc. But in the long run, those will go away, and hopefully so will the cancer.

My brother is having lasers pointed at his face and medicine after medicine pumped into his system. The man who taught him to be strong, the man who could commiserate with his situation is gone. I cannot imagine what it must be like for my brother, going into treatment every single day, being told he has an amazing chance to be cancer free, and wonder why this wasn’t possible for our father.

Despite the optimism and strength of my brother and family, there are moments when the weight of my thoughts seems crushing. Even in the moments when I am not fearful for my brother, the grief for my father feels fresh and new. Even when I am positive my brother will kick cancer’s ass, I am reminded our father is gone. I am reminded my family is going through this again. Cancer took my father, and now it threatens to come for my brother. And while I am confident my brother and his medical team have a good chance, the memories of five years ago keep resurfacing, and I have to try with everything I have to push them back down.

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s brother.

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Thinkstock photo by: vadimguzhva

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