Survivor Stories

Tracy Olsen, Stage I

Diagnosed  03/29/2015

Stage T1a Clark’s focal II – Catastrophic changes to daily life

I just celebrated my second year as a Melanoma survivor on the sunny beaches of Cancun huddled under draped cabanas, massive dark colored, tightly woven umbrellas and twelve inch thick thatched roofs. I was the only guest ambling about the stunning all inclusive resort beneath an Aussie certified UV 50+ reflective umbrella covered in long sleeves and pants or reapplying sunscreen every two hours whilst lolling in a bikini beneath the safety of shade.

The destination may seem like an odd choice (UV index 11+) to mark a victory over cancer caused by sun, but I wasn’t there for me. I was there to support my husband who earned a prestigious destination award from his company. Although it was a magnificent trip and offered a complete stress free, decompression for all the other winners and their guests, for me, it was filled with the anxiety of being the “freaky Melanoma girl that’s a buzz kill at the beach.”

Such an odd juxtaposition played out in front of me. From sunrise to sunset, I watched intelligent, successful, committed, fun loving, delightful adults change colors from white toast or dark mocha to rose and purple scarlet, while their children were clad from head to toe in swim shirts, hats and slathered in sunscreen. I’m glad they embraced the message of sun safety for their kids.

My garb and catamaran cancellation generated curiosity and forthright discussions where I met a Melanoma Nurse Educator. She was the voice of reason amidst my internal struggle explaining that our ozone layer has rapidly depleted over decades and that the sun our youth are growing up with is completely different from the sun we grew up with, thus the higher rates of Melanoma, lest we forget UV rays cause it.

As for my story, the little voice in my head, a last minute appointment that opened up the day after discovering a teeny tiny freckle on my inner knee and my dermatologist’s valuing her patient’s “gut instincts” saved my life. My doctor explained to her intern, “When a patient points out a specific spot or mole, take it serious.” She leaned in close with the magnifying apparatus and said “I don’t like this, but I don’t think it’s Melanoma.” She continued to give the intern a tutorial using my teeny tiny new freckle to illustrate ABCD. A punch biopsy later, I left the office still ignorant in bliss. As a non-smoker, healthy eater, life long weightlifter and runner, I was the portrait of health.

Even though I grew up on the beach before sunscreen was invented, my mom only took me to the surf early morning or late afternoon. I used sunscreen during high school marching band rehearsals and when I laid out post college and beyond, it was usually for 30 minutes or less. I must confess, I didn’t bother applying sunscreen during those daily respites, nor did I ever consider my 3 visits to a tanning bed to make my wedding dress “pop” at age 21 would come back to haunt me over 20 years later.

Three days after my punch biopsy I received the doctor’s Sunday night phone call. “I already consulted with an oncologist and you won’t need chemotherapy, but the lab came back. Melanoma.” For the most part, cut and paste all the other survivors’ stories: I felt shock, dismay and disbelief, I spent hours on late night internet searches, had a massive amount of flesh removed, laid up with a knee that couldn’t be bent for a month and said adios to the sun.

It has been and will be one of the most heart wrenching goodbyes I’ve ever said. Unlike an old flame that moves out of state or finds a new affection, mine is omnipresent, teasing me through window blinds, winking hello in reflections from car mirrors ahead of me in traffic and tantalizing me with iridescent twinkles from our pool. These days, I unfurl my yoga mat in the life extending shade and breath deep rather than unfurling my towel against the warmth of my lifelong lover. God, I miss him.

Two years have passed and I’m grateful to be a survivor. I’m ecstatic I took swift action and avoided radiation or chemo and I’m committed to keep it that way. I’ve had three or four subsequent punch biopsies, one of which was pre-Melanoma, but I struggle every single day trying to avoid the largest, most powerful orb at the center of our universe while simultaneously answering the question, “Is it gonna rain?” as I make way around daily life under an umbrella.

Fellow Melanoma survivors, I hope you can find the courage to believe in your choices of how to cope with this diagnosis and face those who doubt you. Stay resolute in your decisions. This is your disease. This is your life. This is your future. Never doubt.