I’ve never been much for laying in the sun trying to get tan because, basically, it just doesn’t happen (I am a very basic light-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned, freckled white girl). I’m pretty good about wearing sunscreen – but I have’t been hyper-diligent all my life. I’ve had a couple minor sunburns, the kind that smart for a couple of days, peel, and fade.
But I just got diagnosed with skin cancer.
I visited the dermatologist about seven years ago for a few minor things that got zapped. I left with a reminder to wear sunscreen and come back once a year. But then our insurance changed and it was such a hassle to find a new doctor who would take a self-pay patient, and it just fell off the radar, and before I knew it, years had gone by.
I thank God for my honest, thin-filtered kids. Sometime around our beach trip at the beginning of the summer, one of them caught sight of my bare shoulder, low enough on my back that I’d never seen it, and blurted out MOM WHAT IS THAT?
YOU NEED TO HAVE THAT LOOKED AT. MOM.
It’s a funny thing, when your adult children start bossing you around. But I thank God for them today, or I’d be crafting a completely different blog post.
I found a dermatologist who would happily see a self-pay patient (shout out to Bon Secours). After the initial examination, she said – kindly, but firmly – Okay, this is not good. We’re going to go ahead and take that off. And we’re going to do some tests. And I think we’re looking at melanoma here. And our next steps would be a lymph node biopsy and then a CT scan because melanoma is aggressive and it’s fast and it can go to the lungs, liver, or bones. Sit tight; this is going to pinch a bit…
The lidocaine went in, along with some gentle, distracting commentary: Did you know that redheads and fair skinned people require more lidocaine than the general population?
I did not. So I got a double dose, and then she sliced off a hunk of my skin.
My head was still spinning. The doctor was kind, attentive, thoughtful, considerate. She interacted with me and shared information exactly as I would have wanted. But the content shook me.
That was the word I used, when I sent a quick Marco Polo a couple of friends.
For the next six days, everything changed. My perspective was so radically different, as I processed the What if…
What if this is a worse-case scenario?
What if this next season of my life requires intense cancer treatment?
What if my life is going to be cut short? What if I don’t make it to 60?
What if it’s REALLY bad and really fast and I never get to see my grandchild?
What if this is why David hasn’t gotten that call-back about his future plans what if this is why I have a headache what if this is why my legs hurt at night what if it’s in my bones how am I gonna help my kids navigate this who’s going to lead music at Powhatan now how will we pay for cancer treatment what about Tony’s hand surgery next week how am I ever gonna tell my parents what about all my piano students is my hair going to fall out what if what if what if what if what if what if…..
(I confess I jumped ahead; I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who does that sort of thing…)
It was a swirl of emotions and thoughts. But in the midst of it all – actually, at the bottom of it all – was a foundational peace. I wasn’t anxious or tense; I was thoughtful and introspective, but with a pervasive calm. Those thoughts roiled around in my head, but I found it possible to let them flow through and then set them aside.
It was a happy surprise.
I pondered this in my heart. I told my husband, and there were moments of levity. We joked about whether or not he’d be needing a new wife…
I prayed, although that word hardly holds the weight it deserves. More accurately, I was in ongoing conversation with the vastness that is what we call ‘God’, which seems so beyond everything and anything that a simple three-letter name hardly seems adequate. An electrified, pulsing dialogue flowed throughout pretty much every moment of my day – but rather than the pleading, desperate petitions I assumed I might favor, there was instead an easy conversation and a comforting sense of Presence. I was present to all that I was feeling, and in return, I experienced an incredible steadiness.
That’s it. A simple, steady Presence.
And it was enough.
So, I waited. I navigated my work and my family and held all this inner navigation close to my heart. I sang my heart out at church on Sunday and knew – deep in my bones – the immense power residing in my faith in whatever lay ahead. We say that we “cling to our faith” in our darkest, most difficult times; I have cried those desperate tears of sorrow over the pain my children have suffered. But this settled confidence dispersed the need for any clinging. I sang, You are for me – not against me, and I firmly believed it to be true.
On Tuesday morning, a voicemail came through from the doctor, asking for a call back. I left the office, drove to the library, and entered the woods – the path I have walked hundreds of times, in conversation with God, in contemplation of life and purpose, absorbed in podcasts and audio teaching. This was a place sacred to me, a canopy of safety and assurance. I found a bench and sat, still.
I spoke, aloud, because I believe that we are heard. I cried. I waited. I expected the worst, because when the doctor wants to talk to you – rather than just having a nurse convey the message – I assume that’s not positive news.
The phone called commenced. She asked how the initial spot was healing. Small talk.
Okay then – we got the lab results back and it’s the best possible news. We caught it early.
…best possible news….
No lymph node biopsies. No CT scans to see if it had spread.
Best possible news.
Another small outpatient surgery lies ahead, to excise the margins and ensure that they got it all. I’ll get on a regular schedule of dermatologist visits – every six months. I don’t care how much it costs.
I’ll wear sunscreen all the time, everywhere.
And I will keep living, keep singing, keep embracing every moment and celebrating all the joy and sorrow that is this human existence. Even as I know that this life is limited in time and space; even as I know that sorrow and pain inevitably do lie ahead.
The best possible news; I am alive. I am loved; I love others. I inhale deeply, and I exhale gratitude and joy and thank you thank you thank you thank you, a million times over.