I knew to be careful about the sun. I'm fair and freckly and my father died of melanoma at 66. So I went to the dermatologist regularly for check-ups.
But my husband, Jeff, and I are outdoor lovers. We hike, swim, camp and snow ski. I always took care with sunscreen, hats, and finding shade whenever possible.
Life changes with melanoma
Then, when I was 44, I realized maybe I hadn't been careful enough. A lump under the skin of my upper right thigh turned out to be melanoma.
I'd had it about three years, but my dermatologist had said it was nothing to worry about. But when it got bigger, then turned blue, I became alarmed enough to have it removed.
The surgeon told Jeff and me that it was melanoma, and there was lymph node involvement. In a moment my world changed. I worried about telling my family. We'd lost my Dad 12 years earlier to the same cancer.
But soon I was surrounded by a huge cocoon of love from family, friends, co-workers and even strangers.
Yet I had mixed emotions. Grateful for all the love and concern, but full of questions. Why had this happened? What did it mean?
I thought of all the things in my life that weren't right. I was too busy, too stressed at my job. My marriage needed work. I needed a creative outlet. Maybe I wasn't eating healthy enough. I needed to find more joy and peace and laughter.
My cancer support
I've always been especially close to my oldest sister, Carolyn. She is always ready to lend an ear when you want to talk. She's able to draw out what's in your heart.
Carolyn is special in our family: a mother, a counselor, a friend and a sister all rolled into one angel of a person. She's the one I shared all my innermost thoughts and feelings with during this time. She listened to my fears of leaving my children without a mother, my anguish in trying to fix my life, my hopes for recovery, my sick jokes about cancer -- everything.
Jeff, on the other hand, is a man of action. In search of the best care for me, he asked all of his friends. The consensus choice was MD Anderson.
Jeff made the calls, got the paperwork together and soon we were there. Everyone was friendly and caring; I told Jeff that it felt more like a resort hotel than a hospital -- except that the "cocktails" (barium for CT scans) were a little lacking.
The flower of hope
My physician, Paul Mansfield, M.D., explained the treatments for melanoma and answered all of our questions. He assured us there would be a whole team to decide on the best course of action. We knew we were in good hands.
I would have more surgery -- a wide local incision near the tumor plus a lymph node dissection in the groin, where the other nodes had been found.
The morning of surgery, Carolyn came to our house to stay with our two daughters while Jeff and I were at the hospital. Before we left, Carolyn and I walked in the backyard for a few minutes savoring the beautiful October day. I knew that the prayers of so many were with me, but felt a little apprehensive, too.
I reached down and picked a little yellow daisy and gave it to Carolyn. I didn't know then that so small a gesture would mean so much to her. She pressed and framed the little yellow flower and keeps it to this day.
I also had no idea that just a few years later, Carolyn would come to me with news of her own.
Tomorrow: Part II