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In my own words

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By Rachel Cruz

What began as a remarkably uneventful first pregnancy changed with a phone call one afternoon almost three years ago.

My dermatologist wanted to talk to me about my biopsy. Did I have a few minutes?

As a precaution, I’d scheduled a dermatology appointment a few months earlier. One of my moles concerned my doctor, so she had it biopsied.

Now she told me two things: I had melanoma, and she was referring me to MD Anderson. I panicked.

Almost 16 weeks into our first pregnancy, my husband and I had reconstructed our hectic lives to accommodate the arrival of a baby. We had moved to Houston to be closer to family. We were house hunting, and I was searching for a job with more flexibility.

And now this terrifying news. We flew into motion to arrange our first visit to MD Anderson. We’d never been more relieved that we’d moved to Houston.

Three weeks later, after surgery and a sentinel lymph node biopsy revealed no metastasis, my life resumed. Since the disease was detected early, my medical team, led by the amazing Jeff Gershenwald, M.D., decided that my treatment was complete.

But I worried about my pregnancy, especially after developing a uterine blood clot following surgery that put me at higher risk for miscarriage. Luckily, it dissolved before the birth of my son, Ryan, who was born healthy and on time.

Now, more than two years after his birth, Ryan is pure sunshine – the great joy of our lives.

But there’s no question that having cancer has changed me.

I’ve had to confront a world in which melanoma is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in young women and often affects patients who are otherwise healthy.

That’s difficult and frightening to face.

I don’t know why I got melanoma, but I’m determined not to give it a reason to return. Besides my quarterly skin check, nobody in my house goes outside without applying sunscreen. My toddler thinks hats and sunglasses are the coolest fashion accessories in the world. He’s never seen his mother outside without either.

I’ve had to cope with the fear that my disease might recur or that I might develop a new melanoma. No headache, swollen lymph gland or new freckle goes unnoticed. I also worry about my son developing the same disease. (As the red-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned child of a parent with a history of melanoma, he’s already at increased risk for developing it.) Since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve learned to surround myself with supportive, reassuring and positive friends and family members who help keep these fears in check.

Connecting with others who’ve faced cancer has helped, as has my volunteer work at MD Anderson. By reminding me that many face greater struggles, it’s helped me maintain perspective. Volunteering is also a small attempt to repay the support, kindness and compassion of my medical team and the volunteers I encountered during my treatment.

Most of all, I value so many more things in my life. I’m grateful for boisterous mornings of toddler play and the quiet pleasure of an evening bike ride. I’m grateful for afternoons spent lounging with my family and days of simply feeling healthy.

My melanoma was removed 19 days after it was diagnosed. And I delivered a healthy baby right on schedule.

I’m grateful for those two things. Every single day.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center