SKIN CANCER - THE STORY CONTINUES?
It wasn't that long ago I was writing about my journey with the mole on my leg, confident that it was a story that was done and dusted. Yet, as I sat there writing that post, what we believed to be 'scar tissue' was a lymph node gone rogue because the cancer had spread. This would have been ignored even longer if it wasn't for a second tumour that started growing near the original site.
Despite my sentinel lymph node biopsy coming back clear, I believe that something went awry because of the swelling that started shortly after the all-clear. I recall thinking to myself "Oh, I thought I'd massaged all the scar tissue away."
On occasion, I'd massage the hard lump trying to gauge the size or shape but because it felt irregular it seemed to emphasize to me that it was scarring.
However a few months ago I noticed an itch on my leg, along with a lump under the skin. The itch feels similar to that of a mosquito bite, with some warmth to the area but the lump reminds me of one of those glass marbles with a flat base (that everyone was using in their vases at some point) except the 'lump' is bigger.
One evening as I was scratching at my leg it dawned on me that this "bite" wasn't actually going away the way I'd been telling myself it would. I suddenly realised this was something I had to have checked.
I booked an appointment with my GP, explained the situation and had some blood work done, expecting there to be an infection, probably related to an ingrown hair from waxing or something.
A few days later my test results came back clear of any infection but showed signs of "inflammation". The doctor was at a loss and asked: "Have we tried antibiotics?" I looked at him and said, "You just told me my blood is clear of any infection, why would you suggest antibiotics?" (Seriously?) He nodded and declared "Yes, yes, you're right."
We scheduled in for an ultrasound which showed the size and placement but not much else. A second GP was at a loss about what to do next. She had no next step. (Again, seriously!) So I let her know it was okay and that I had a 6-month check-up the following day with the plastics clinic and they can take it from there. She was relieved that I gave her the next step.
The following day I spoke with a doctor about the lump in my leg, his boss came to have a look (the same Dr who did the sentinel node removal), said it was probably a "fat deposit" and suggested a needle biopsy using an ultrasound for guidance so I was surprised when I came back a week later and had a punch biopsy done.
I asked the doctor twice if the punch biopsy was going to be deep enough, once before the procedure and once after seeing the samples in the specimen jar. In both instances, he assured me the sample was deep enough. I was sceptical but figured I'd trust someone who's had more experience in these things.
I went home to heal, removed my own stitches a week later and invested some time researching. I was in the shower when it suddenly dawned on me that the lump in my groin had become quite invasive and painful in certain positions and that's when the penny dropped.
At that moment I knew both lumps were related and I wasn't just dealing with scar tissue, an insect bite or an ingrown hair. I had a bit of a cry, feeling incredibly stupid at having missed something (despite all the checkups) that had been going on for over a year and prepared myself for the news.
A week after that, I was back in the hospital for the results from the punch biopsy. The big boss who had been overseeing my case from the beginning declared the specimen "negative" of any cancer but the news felt ... empty ... void of relief.
He went on to tell me that from here on out I would be able to see my local GP for regular check-ups which all seemed like good news until I asked: "So what did the results actually say the lump was?"
When he said "Sun damage." I shook my head, instantly knowing that something was amiss and told the Dr that there was no way the lump was "sun damage" because it didn't make sense. He decided to assess the lump himself during which time he shared that a punch biopsy "doesn't go deep enough." (You don't say!)
I also mentioned that he might want to have a feel of my groin ...
A few days later I was back for ultrasound-guided needle biopsies.
The first site to be tested was my groin. Honestly, the most painful part was a tiny sting where the doctor injected some local anesthetic. I asked to watch, expecting to see a white mass on the screen (you know, from an ingrown hair) so I was both fascinated to see a dark round mass and very surprised to be told it was an enlarged lymph node.
Each sample of the lymph node was taken and immediately passed to the lab, where they did a quick analysis to see if they had enough cells to test. After a few attempts, the doctor apologised sharing that they had to keep doing more because they kept getting "gooey liquid with no cells". I asked if the liquid was lymph and she said: "No, it's necrotic." Alarm bells went off.
She tried a different strategy, focusing on getting enough sample from the edge of the node which was a success, so then we moved onto the lower leg.
The anesthetic needle stung like buggery but passed almost in an instant and I needn't have been worried about anything because the whole team was as gentle and caring as they could be during the procedure, quite often apologetic for assumed pain (that didn't exist).
Another two weeks passed and I went back to the hospital for the results which have come back positive for the melanoma which means cancer has now metastasized (spread).
Here's the scary part ... if I wasn't someone who didn't ask questions or stand up for myself when something feels off, where would I be? Having walked out the door weeks ago with undiagnosed Stage IIID cancer.
I'll be speaking with the doctor who did the punch biopsy in the near future to tell him he was wrong and someone with no medical training or background, was right!
A really great resource for understanding what stage you are is https://www.aimatmelanoma.org/
The next step is more information (always). We know it's spread to the lymph nodes so now we need to know if it's spread anywhere else in my body and this was done by a PET scan where radioactive sugar is infused into your fasting body and then put in a big machine to look for areas that light up ... because cancer gobbles down sugars faster than normal cells.
The scan decides the next step in the treatment plan.