I don’t much like going to the doctor but I am trying to be grownup and schedule medical things this month whilst my husband is away. Consequently, I have booked my six monthly mammogram and I’ve just come back from a skin cancer check-up.
I worry about skin cancer. I always have, even before it killed my father. I always, always wear sunscreen (although not a hat – I have too much hair and it makes me too hot), every day of the year and, growing up, my children never got sunburnt in my care, not once. It was a far cry from the days of long summer holidays in my youth, where you expected to come back from the beach beet red and sizzling.
I have all sorts of bumps and marks on me so every few years or so I think about getting them checked out and then every five years or so, I actually do it. I am, as I said before, very conscientious about the sunscreen (Factor 5000 or whatever the highest is that they make at the particular time of purchase) so I haven’t been too concerned.
I noticed that my local medical clinic had a sign up saying that they had an expert who came in on Saturday mornings and, spur of the moment, I booked an appointment, which I went to this morning. He was extremely thorough and checked me over. All over, right down to between my toes and on my scalp. Underwear pulling up and down thorough.
Turns out I should have been concerned. Melanoma has a very strong genetic link and I should come back to see him every year or sooner if the two spots he marked on me start to change. My father was having check-ups every 3 to 6 months with a specialist and they still didn’t catch his in time. I have to confess that my mouth went a little dry when I heard that I had a high chance of developing it too. I always thought it was my Dad’s early years living and working in the Arabian Desert that caused his; I didn’t realise it could be a family thing. I was also counselled to tell my children to have yearly check-ups.
A further bit of information is that people who develop melanoma are more likely to develop other forms of cancer as well. Of course they can’t prove any correlation or statistics but it is noted. Considering that 1 out 2 people are likely to develop some sort of cancer in their lifetime, this is easy to believe. I’ve had two small tumours removed already; both of them contained and both of them in different areas of the body and of different types.
Melanoma is different. It is so aggressive and can spread so widely. The doctor was nice enough to answer a few of my questions about my Dad’s melanoma. He said that you really needed an expert to pick it up immediately and not all skin specialists were melanoma experts, which makes sense. The skin specialists usually refer you to a melanoma expert and then surgery and sometimes that just takes a little bit too long. If any is missed during surgery often – and he added that he was generalising here – by the time secondary treatment is started the melanoma has already metastasised but it just hasn’t manifested yet.
I am sitting here writing this and thinking back to the time of my Dad’s first operation. How we all gathered around his bed in the private hospital ward and made jokes about his horrific appearance and how pleased he was to see us all. He told us all not to come for such a minor operation (only in for 24 hours) but we all came anyway. The surgeon came in and told us he was almost 100% confident he had got it all out: so much so that he wasn’t even recommending any follow up treatment. There were smiles of relief and general outbursts of thanks and good wishes all round but amidst the general clamour a little pool of silence formed inside my head and a voice said, clearly and distinctly, “This is what your father will die from’.
And somewhere in the room I could hear a clock, ticking down the minutes.