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How a Cancerous Mole the Size of a Pea Turned My World Upside Down

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No doubt, I have abused my skin in the sun and the tanning bed through the years. I also have family history with non-melanoma skin cancers. Like many, having a tan made me feel good. It was nice during the summer months to be tan. My skin is fair and it took a lot of work, but by the beginning of summer, I was lightly bronzed.

Debbie Spivey melanoma photo 1

For about six months, I had been watching a mole on my leg evolve. It was just above my right knee and about the size of a pea. It had all the classic characteristics of what the experts say to watch out for the ABCDE’s of melanoma, which stand for:

  • Asymmetry
  • Border — Irregular Shape
  • Color — Started off light and became darker over time with red edges
  • Diameter — The size of a pea or pencil eraser
  • Evolving — In six month’s time the mole grew and became darker

I may have been ignorant about my sun exposure, but at least I knew what to look out for. This mole was an angry-looking beast and it wasn’t going away. Instead, it was getting bigger. Not knowing just how bad the beast growing on my skin was, I allowed it to stay there. I put off getting it checked out. Part of it was fear and part of it was ignorance.

Debbie Spivey melanoma mole 1
This is what melanoma looks like. Black, irregular shaped, with red edges. There was a nick still in it from where I cut it with the razor. — Photo courtesy of my dermatologist

I realized I needed to get this mole taken care of one night when I was in the shower shaving. I skimmed over the mole with a razor. It bled until after I got out of the shower, but I never felt it. It was painless. It didn’t burn, didn’t sting. It just bled.

Something is truly wrong when something that ugly is cut and there is no feeling of pain whatsoever. The bleeding stopped and within a day, it looked just as ugly as it always had.

I called a dermatologist near where we live, but I was told they were not seeing new patients until February 2016! I didn’t even bother calling the family practice where I go for general health care. I guess they could have gotten me into that particular dermatologist sooner, but there was no time for that. I knew it was not wise to wait any longer. I started to search for another dermatologist an hour away from home, but near where David and I work. A doctor’s appointment near work wouldn’t require as much time off to make the visit and I could go and come back during a long lunch break.

I made an appointment about a week and a half after I cut the mole. Much better than waiting another three months!

My initial visit with my dermatologist was the first Friday of November. During this visit, the dermatologist did a thorough skin check all over my body. After years of abuse, my weathered skin has a lot of moles — heck, I think I was even born with moles. She was thorough and notated a few watch spots on my chart, but there was nothing of major concern. She also checked out another place on my face I was concerned about.

She saved that ugly mole until last for evaluation.

Debbie Spivey melanoma mole 2
Photo courtesy of my dermatologist

Doctors have great poker faces, but sometimes if you look at their eyes, they will tell you what’s really going on. As I looked at her eyes while she was inspecting the mole, I could see the concern in them. She told me she wanted to do a biopsy and quickly made arrangements for me to come in early on Monday morning. She wanted me in her office before her normal day started to do the biopsy right away.

David and I commute into the city together. A normal work day for us starts off at 5:00 a.m. We leave the house about 5:45 a.m. David drives in the morning. I drop him off at work at 7:00 a.m. and then drive about two miles down the road to my job. Our work days begins at 7:30 a.m. That particular Monday I dropped David off, but instead of going to work, I went to my dermatologist for the biopsy. I arrived a lot earlier than my appointment, but went ahead inside. I was surprised to find the office already bustling for the day. I didn’t have to wait but just a few minutes before I was called back to begin the biopsy.

During the biopsy I was laying flat on my back on the examining table, with a small pillow under my head. I couldn’t see what was going on, but I think I would have watched her make the incision (if given the opportunity). After a few stings from a needle and slight pressure from the dermatologist’s hands, it was all over.

Debbie Spivey biopsy 1 month later
The biopsy site one month after the mole was removed. Taken the night before surgery, December 4.

The dermatologist said it would take one-to-two weeks to get the results from the biopsy. If it came back OK, they would call me and let me know. If it was more complicated, then I would be called to come back into the office to discuss the results.

I was at work within an hour of my normal start time. I went on about my day and about my week.

I leave work at 3:30 p.m. and go back to David’s work to pick him up. I have to wait about 20 minutes for him to complete his day. On Thursday, just four days after the biopsy was done, I was sitting in the car waiting for David to come out. It had been a long week and I  was relieved I didn’t have to go home and clean (I clean thoroughly clean house every other Thursday). All I wanted to do was go home, eat pizza and watch TV.

That sigh of relief and thoughts of pizza and TV were rudely interrupted by my ringing phone. I was receiving an incoming call from the dermatologist’s office. I answered the phone. It was a nurse from the dermatologist office. She wanted to know if I had time to come by the office that evening because the doctor wanted to review my biopsy results with me. She didn’t provide any information and I didn’t ask her any questions.

I knew it wasn’t good. I agreed to come in as soon as I could. She told me I would more than likely have to wait a while before I could be worked in to see the doctor.

Upset, I called David and told him about the call and that we had to stop by. He was willing to drop everything to come out a few minutes earlier. But I insisted he finish up because we had plenty of time. Within 10 minutes, he was in the car and we were off to the dermatologist office.

The nurse wasn’t lying. We waited for what seemed like months. Watching patients go and come — so much for going home to relax eating pizza. Finally, the nurse called me back. I was very nervous. The nurse routinely checked my vitals. She was in a good mood, kind of joking and carrying on like she would with any patient. She told me my blood pressure was the highest reading of the day. I told her it was because I didn’t know why I was there or what was going on. As soon as I said that, her face went into “doctor poker face,” showing no emotion. She finished up, told me the doctor would be in soon and left the room. Another clue my results were bad.

Shaking like a leaf sitting on the office table, David and I tried to make small talk and he attempted to try to calm my nerves. After another long 10-15 minutes, the dermatologist knocked on the door. She came in greeted me and introduced herself to David. She gave a quick look at my biopsy site, then pulled up a stool and laid my chart up on the table.

“The results of the biopsy show that the mole was melanoma,” she said.

Even though I knew what she was going to say, to hear it confirmed was a shock to the system.

I tried my best to keep up with what she was telling us. She was very thorough in explaining the results. One of the major factors that determines the treatment needed for melanoma is the thickness of the melanoma itself. The melanoma removed from my leg was 1.2 millimeters thick. (To give you a size comparison, a dime is 1 millimeter thick. So the melanoma removed from my leg was a little thicker than a dime.)

The melanoma potentially had grown deeper than the top layer of skin. That meant at that point I was in the melanoma stage 1 category. This meant I needed to seek treatment from a specialist. More than likely, I would need surgery to ensure clear margins and at the same time have a sentinel lymph node biopsy to ensure that the cancer had not spread into my body.

My newfound dermatologist had taken the liberty of calling a melanoma and skin cancer center in Fairfax, Virginia, to have me worked in the following week. They wanted me to spend the day there so they could begin examinations and testing. I could not have picked a better dermatologist to go to. She had put me on the fast track from day one. She gave me a detailed explanation about the findings, the next steps for treatment and was willing to answer all of our questions.

David and I were absorbing, but she couldn’t answer the one question we had: Did I still have cancer?

That lazy pizza night turned into a restless one. I couldn’t stop googling melanoma and scaring myself to death. For the next few days I was in a daze. From the time I’d wake up in the morning until night when I laid down in the bed, cancer was all I could think about. I thought about things I had never wanted to think about: the end of life. I didn’t allow myself to stay there, but I wouldn’t be normal if I didn’t go there. Until my appointment day, my brain was like scrambled eggs.

The day for my appointments at center arrived. I spent the better part of a day there and had appointments all morning. First, I saw a nurse practitioner, who eased my nerves and put a lot of our fears to rest from the very start. She had a copy of the pathology report and carefully went into each detail of what the report meant, and how staging cancer worked to determine where I was. Her explanation of things immediately relaxed a lot of our concerns.

After the detailed explanation, she proceeded to do a thorough skin check and then I briefly awaited visits from the head dermatologist, the oncologist and the surgeon. Each doctor felt of my lymph nodes and I had a couple more thorough skin checks by each of them.

Before lunch time that day it was determined I needed surgery. I was being scheduled for a surgical procedure called a “wide excision” and at the same time they were going to do a sentinel lymph node biopsy.

On this same day, they made an appointment for me to walk over to see a plastic surgeon. Since the melanoma was so close to my knee, there was concern about closure of the surgery site and keeping my knee functional. The plastic surgeon would more than likely be doing the closure of the incision. He specializes in rebuilding lives after cancer.

I also had all the ordered labs for blood work, an ECG of my heart (since I have high blood pressure) and a chest x-ray. It was a long day, but I was able to get so much accomplished. I was surrounded by top specialist that networked beautifully together. It took a lot of stress out of the situation. All that was accomplished on that day was done at a single campus. We never once had to move the car from the parking garage. Best of all, I wouldn’t need to take any more time off from work, before the surgery.

During my visit, we were in the waiting area for my labs and saw a pretty young woman about the same age as me, if not younger. I recognized her from the radiology department when I was there for my chest x-ray. Her mother was with her. She was up at the desk talking with the receptionist about her insurance and labs. David and I overheard her mom on the phone talking about a tumor that was found. The mother’s voice was starting to quiver and she told the person on the other end of the line she needed to off the phone before she lost it and couldn’t stop crying. I watched the pretty young woman from a distance. She was very thin. Her diagnosis was much more serious than mine.

One of the doctors from my earlier appointment told me that out of the seven new cases they had that day I had the most straightforward plan for treatment. I was called back for my labs and we didn’t see the mother and daughter again.

Debbie Spivey lymph node biopsy
Locating the lymph node for biopsy.

Surgery day was scheduled for December 4. David and I arrived at the hospital around 6:00 a.m. and awaited my check-in for surgery. First, I went down to Nuclear Medicine, where I was injected with a blue radioactive dye at the melanoma site to determine the location of lymph node they would need to biopsy. If the cancer spread it would go here first. After about an hour I had an “X” hand drawn by a doctor on my groin. That “X” marked the location of the lymph node to be taken out for biopsy.

After the lymph node was identified, I was on the fast track. The lymph node had turned blue from a radioactive dye they had injected into me. If they were to wait too long they dye would clear out of my system. I went into pre-op was prepped for surgery and away I went.

Debbie Spivey after surgery in bed
E.T. phone home? Under the influence of anesthesia.

When I awoke, my entire leg was bandaged up and I had a huge leg brace on it. I was in some pain, but the doctors and nurses quickly got that under control by injected some pain medicine in my IV. Everything went well with the surgery. They ended up taking two lymph nodes instead of the one, but nothing physically looked concerning. I would have the results from the biopsy in a couple of weeks.

Debbie Spivey bandaged and braced leg
Bandaged and braced up.

Not long after I awoke, I was dressing to head back home. David picked up my prescription for pain meds at the hospital pharmacy and thanks to a wonderful hospital valet parking service, we were on the road home to the mountain in no time. The surgery was behind me, but we still had a long two-week wait. There was a standing follow-up appointment on December 16 for the results and further treatment instruction.

For six long days I recouped at home. I didn’t have much pain, but I was so miserably uncomfortable. With all the bandaging and that awful brace on my leg I couldn’t shower, so I had to wash my hair in the kitchen sink and take sponge baths using the bathroom sink.

I couldn’t get comfortable in bed at night. I’m a side sleeper and laying on my back took a few nights to get use to, not to mention David and I had to switch sides of the bed so it would be easier to get my right leg in and out of the bed. His Royal Highness was deeply confused about why we switched sides of the bed, and it was pretty amusing to watch his reaction when we went to bed at night.

After those uncomfortable six days, I had a follow-up appointment with the plastic surgeon to remove the bandaging and take that awful brace off my leg for a few minutes. All was healing nicely and I was able to shower! I was not allowed to fully bend my knee. He said the brace was a safety net to ensure I didn’t bend my leg far enough to pop open the incision. I could take it off if I weren’t up walking around.

Debbie Spivey leg after surgery
Seeing my leg for the first time 1 week after surgery.

It was great taking showers again. I don’t know how people used to function without a full shower. I just need my shower! All of that was great, but I still didn’t have peace. I still didn’t know the one question I had from the beginning.

Did I still have cancer?

I stopped allowing myself to think anything but positive. My blood work was fine, my chest x-ray was clear. I had no physical signs that cancer was still in my body. After two long weeks, David and I went to my follow-up appointment for the results.

We waited a lot longer than the time we were there before. We sat in the examination room acting like we normally would, laughing and saying silly stuff. Just being us, without cancer. Finally, there was a knock at the door and in came my oncologist with a folder in his hand. He pulled up a stool and pulled out some stapled papers.

The results showed that all was clear!

There was no residual cancer cells found around the site of the melanoma, nor were any cancer cells found in the two lymph nodes tested.

No more signs of cancer!

Leaving the doctor’s office with such relief. Finally after weeks of not knowing, I could take a full breath and breathe again. A huge weight fell off of my shoulders, but on the way out of the driveway of the melanoma center, I could not help but think about that poor woman getting x-rays and labs the same day I did. I teared up a little and told David, “You know, I’m leaving this place as one of the lucky ones.”

Debbie Spivey leg recovery

I am still recovering from surgery. I’ve been very sore and I am just beginning to fully bend my knee again. I will take some time, but eventually all of that will go away. It’s nothing compared to what could have been.

No signs of cancer doesn’t mean this is the end. I have to be very diligent with follow-up care for the coming months and years for the next five years. There is a 10 percent chance the melanoma could come back, whether it is through the skin near or around where the original melanoma was located, it could be found in the lymph nodes (although the chances of that is extremely low — about two-to-three percent), or it could have spread homogeneously (meaning through the blood).

I will have skin checks every three months and screening, labs, and x-rays every six months. I am to report any types of illness to the cancer center to determine if further tests would be needed. And of course I will be diligent in caring for my skin and keeping it out of those dangerous UV rays that got me into this mess.

I am no stranger to skin cancer. My daddy passed away with complications from squamous cell skin cancer. Cancer took his ear and it spread all over his face and arms. My mama has had multiple places removed from her arms and face. Hers were a combination of squamous and basal cell cancers. Both of my parents had non-melanoma skin cancer.

I was naive. I thought they would just cut the cancer off and dig it out a little. I did not know that melanoma was such an animal — an aggressive beast that will enter your body and try to kill you, and kill you quick. A mole no bigger than the size of a pea can tear your world upside down and leave you scarred for life.

I’m not one to tell people to stop doing this and stop doing that. When I quit smoking I didn’t jump on the quit smoking bandwagon. I’m not going to jump on the no tanning bandwagon either. That is a personal decision and a battle that each person has to face on their own.

I will tell you this: If you have any suspicion at all about anything growing on your skin, do not wait. Go get checked out as soon as possible. Make an appointment today.

I waited too long. If I had gone to get my mole checked as soon as I realized it wasn’t normal, I wouldn’t have had to go through all of what I’ve been going through the past two months. There wouldn’t have been surgery, no pain, no scars and most importantly, there wouldn’t have been any worry and the mental agony of fear itself.

Do not be afraid. Don’t wait. Go get checked.

I now have one request. Please share my story on social media. Share it with family and friends. You could help save a life!

Thanks for listening.

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Originally published: December 28, 2017
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