Friday, July 22, 2016

Corporeal: Reflection on a Melanoma

It's remarkable how some things remind us, very suddenly and powerfully, that we have a body.  Especially in the professional world, people spend a lot of time distancing themselves from their bodies, maintaining a manicured facade that doesn't cause anyone embarrassment.  This is a bit of an overstatement - for example, you're allowed to mention to coworkers that you're having a colonoscopy the following day*, but can you imagine a high-powered businessman in an Armani suit telling his coworkers he's having a colonoscopy?

[the next 2 paragraphs are not for the squeamish]

The dermatologist drew a circle around the mole with a marker, and then an almond shape around the circle.  It looked like an eye with the mole as the iris.  Then she swabbed iodine on it, and the eye stared upward through the swirls of sepia.  I made the mistake of looking down at one point; the almond shape where the skin had been removed was raw and red, and I could see bulbous swells of subcutaneous fat just below the surface.  Then she mentioned that she was stretching out the skin to get the stitches in, and I began to feel nauseated and drifted into a dream state for a few seconds.  The dermatologist said even she, as a doctor, does not look when something similar is being done to her own body.  Your mind may know you're not in danger, but your body thinks something terrible is happening to it.  Your blood pressure drops, any blood sugar is rapidly consumed, and you become limp and "play dead," like an opossum.  As cerebral as we try to be, we are still instinctual beings, and our reactions to visceral threats and extreme circumstances sometimes surprise us.

When they removed an additional chunk of tissue, I did not look or even think about it.  But my boyfriend was in the room and he saw it, and as soon as the procedure was over I asked him for all the gory details.  He said the piece they removed was just under an inch thick--now I know exactly how much fat I have on the front of my thighs!  I can picture it--a layer of skin no thicker than the skin of a peach, already bruised and furrowed and filled with stitches, covering a healthy slab of globular yellow fat.  Of course this imagining is too neat--there would have been blood everywhere.  Blood seeping from the excised flesh, seeping from the edges where they had cut, soaking into the papers on either side.  I saw some of my own blood on the tray by the bench afterward--bright red blood soaked into handfuls of gauze, and a small steel dish with a shallow pool of deep red blood at the bottom.  I was proud of my blood--it had a deep healthy color and a smooth texture, thick but not too viscous.

A piece of me has been removed, and I have to take it easy for a couple weeks while the skin and fat fuse back together.  The full recovery time might be up to a month, but I should be able to walk normally within two weeks.  It amazes me that the body can heal itself so quickly after having such a sizeable chunk carved out of it.

I'll go to the synagogue soon, to give thanks for my good outcome, I suppose.  Isn't that what people used to do--go to a place of worship and give thanks for their safe passage through a trial?  I was never afraid, but I am in awe.  It would be too cliche to say that my life is forever changed and I'm going to live each day as if it was my last, and it's not true anyway.  I'll still go to bed without brushing my teeth, take evening naps that keep me up half the night, and let dishes pile up in the sink.  I'll still worry about money, career, and connecting with people in strange new places.

But I relish the ordinary things ahead of me just a little bit more.  I look forward to being able to walk at a normal speed again, go for a hike, swim in the Gulf, buy sun hats and loose flowy trousers and maxi skirts, have a glass of wine, visit family, go to New Mexico with Caleb one day.  I'll have a fairly long scar and I don't expect I'll be self-conscious about it--my body is something to be proud of and I'll wear cutoff shorts if I damn well please.  Knowing that my body has the potential to create more skin cancer reminds me how much I enjoy the things of ordinary life.  It spurs me to plan and take time in a way that I might not otherwise--I'm the laziest person on earth and not at all a morning person, but I at least need to make time in the mornings to apply sunscreen.  And of course, it makes me grateful to otherwise be in excellent health.  Having to walk slowly on my stiff leg has given me a small taste of what it would be like to have my mobility limited by arthritis or some other condition.

I think it's true what many people say, that Americans move too fast and are to stressed out to step back and take stock of things, starting with their own bodies.  We lose opportunities to enjoy life in ways that we're able, which might be constrained by illness or infirmity.  The older I get, the more I understand why people do yoga and pray and embrace other coping and centering mechanisms.  I also know that when you're in too deep in the daily grind, something like yoga isn't going to be enough to pull you back into balance.  If you're wondering when you're going to get a job and where you're going to stay at night, the stress can grind you down, and the health problems that result can leave you prostrated.  Often it's the grind itself that leaves people with arthritis, back pain, or cancer.  At work I've taken calls from people who were about to undergo cancer treatment and were on the verge of homelessness.  Another thing to contemplate more seriously post-melanoma is what is within my talents to do so that no cancer patient will ever be homeless.

Looking forward to a long, sunscreen-filled life.

*I've never had a colonoscopy.  For all my talk of people being more aware of their bodily selves, I don't want anyone imagining me having a colonoscopy.  I do not have a rectum.

**Also, I should mention that the melanoma was only Stage 1A, and the prognosis is extremely positive with the excision of extra tissue around where the mole was.  The biopsy results came back from the edges of that bigger chunk they removed, and there were no cancer cells.