Precautionary Nervous Breakdowns

  • It was December 27 and I was waiting to hear if I had skin cancer.


    It all started because of Enbrel. My miracle medication that had given me back my life, enabled me to participate again, to love, to laugh, to live, also came with a downside. Namely the increased risk of certain cancers. Really serious medication that can kick serious butt for really serious problems come with the potential for really serious side effects. When I did the cost-benefit analysis before deciding to start Enbrel, this potential made me nervous, but a slightly increased risk of cancer versus living inside a flare that was taking more and more in my life every day was a no-brainer. I wanted to live, not merely exist, so I signed up for the really serious medication.

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    Ordinarily, my preferred way of dealing with possibly serious problems is to repress, repress, repress, but that wasn't going to work this time around. Deciding to take Enbrel meant I had made a commitment to be healthy - I had to follow through on that commitment and take precautions around the increased cancer risk. This meant getting an annual check for skin and breast cancer, an annual Pap test and anything else my doctor could think of throwing at me.


    I'm originally from Denmark and have the typical Scandinavian look with blonde hair and fair skin. I'm also from an era where we soaked up whatever sun we could get with hardly any protection and have had several bad sunburns, so the dermatologist was my first visit. He looked at my moles and casually deemed them to be melanoma. As I hyperventilated, he dismissively waved a hand at me, telling me that 99% of people with skin cancer survive. At that particular time, this did not even stick in my brain, which was instead preoccupied with a flashing neon CANCER!  I suspect this is a perfectly normal reaction to such a diagnosis.


    Two weeks later, I'm in the hands of a plastic surgeon who, peering at the moles in question, states that she's pretty sure they aren't cancer, but let's remove them just in case. She approaches me with what I'm sure was the biggest needle of local anesthetic ever seen, telling me that it was going to "feel like a bee sting". Sure. If it's a killer bee the size of a small turkey. Holding my leg still while the very pointy syringe was slowly numbing the area south of my left knee was a superhuman effort requiring me to hiss various unladylike words and repeatedly pound the nearest surface. Then the hacking began and I use that word advisedly - if I require two layers of four stitches, you're not just cutting out a mole, you're hacking out chunks of my flesh and I'm going to start checking if you may not possibly be a zombie.


    I may be exaggerating just a little, but this experience taught me that I feel very strongly about keeping my body intact. To be honest, the worst thing about this whole experience was the local anesthetic. Well, that and the fear of CANCER! that had accompanied me for a month, but which I'd fairly successfully repressed.


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    So there I was, shortly after Christmas, waiting in the clinic for my name to be called and when it was, went into the examining room, as composed as I'd somehow managed to be since the dermatologist so casually scared the bejesus out of me. The surgeon looked at the incisions, proclaimed them healing nicely and then told me that the biopsies were negative. I did not have skin cancer. And as I left that room, to walk down the hallway towards the front door, I realized that I was breathing fully for the first time in weeks.


    The time for my annual mole check is coming up, as is the breast clinic and a host of other tests and so far, I've managed to only postpone one of them. Every year, I deliberately put myself in situations that fire up my anxiety levels until they're in the red zone, because I am still on a medication that increases the risk of certain cancers. Having done this for several years has not calmed down the lurking panic as I wait for the results, but once it's done and over, I can spend another year fully enjoying this life of mine made possible by a really serious medication.



    Check out our Skin Cancer site to find out more about melanoma and what you can do to prevent it.

    You can read more of Lene's writing on The Seated View.

Published On: May 26, 2010