I Won’t Get Cancer, I’m Too Young
By: Jessica (Vega) Rogowicz
I am 28 years old and have recently been diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer for the second time in my life. Here is my story…
Since I was 6 years old, my family vacationed at Ocean City, MD. I would wear sunscreen, but had countless sunburns in my life. In high school, I would go to the tanning salon occasionally, mostly for prom and other dances. During college, I really liked the way I looked when I was tan, so I started tanning on a regular basis. I went twice a week for about two years. I went to a salon that offered a variety of beds. There were beds with 42, 54, and 60 bulbs. I wanted the best tan, so on top of my monthly package, I paid extra for the beds with 60 bulbs.
My dad had basal cell carcinoma on his nose. He had it removed, and he is fine. My parents warned me about the dangers of tanning beds. I cared more about what I looked like though. I decided that I would continue tanning and would stop “when I got to the risky age of getting cancer…like in my 50s.” I could continue going tanning and wouldn’t damage my skin for many years, or so I thought. I figured that even if I got skin cancer, it would be similar to my dad’s basal cell—I would get it removed and then I would be fine. I had no clue that skin cancer could spread and that it can be deadly.
Over the years, I developed freckles and many moles. During the summer of 2007, I decided that I would get a mole on my knee removed. It was raised and sometimes I would knick it when shaving. I happened to notice a darker mole on my back that seemed new and awfully dark in comparison with my other moles. I’m a teacher and since I have off during the summer, I decided it couldn’t hurt to go get it removed while I had the extra time. No big deal.
I had both moles removed by my primary care physician, Dr. Fackovec. I remember him telling me that he was going to send me to a plastic surgeon, Dr. Stofman, to take a deeper incision. I wasn’t worried, because even if it was skin cancer, skin cancer is a “pretend cancer” that people don’t die from. I remember receiving a call from Dr. Stofman a few weeks later and him telling me just to keep an eye on those areas and make sure the moles don’t grow back or the scarring doesn’t change. Once again, it was no big deal. I hate to admit it, but I still went tanning. Why stop? After all, I didn’t have cancer. I thought all of the testing was over…just had some moles removed, as I have in the past, and have always been fine. October 31, 2007 changed my life forever.
I vividly remember getting the call that the mole on my back was melanoma. It was Halloween Day 2007, three days shy of my 25th birthday. I was in my classroom at the end of the day and I noticed that I had a voicemail on my cell phone from my plastic surgeon’s nurse. I thought, “That’s strange. Wonder why the doctor needs to talk to me, all of the tests came back fine.” When I called Dr. Stofman I remember him telling me that I have melanoma. He went on to say that he was referring me to Dr. Edington who works through Magee Women’s Hospital. I remember responding to everything he said with, “Okay.” I couldn’t ask or say anything else because if I did, I would start crying. I got off the phone and started hysterically crying. I called my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, and told him that I had melanoma. For some reason, I didn’t fear that I had cancer and still didn’t think that someone could die from skin cancer, but at the same time, it was horrifying getting that call. In my head, “Oncologists are cancer doctors. Why do I have to see one of those? Why can’t my plastic surgeon just remove the cancer?”
I was diagnosed on October 31, 2007. My surgery was scheduled for November 28, 2007. My cancer was still in the early stages and it was slow-growing. I understood that they had to treat patients with more severe cases first. The month of waiting was torturous. For the first few weeks after my diagnosis, for whatever reason, I didn’t do any research online. Looking back, my life was a fog. Two weeks after being diagnosed, my grandmother passed away. My family and I were dealing with me having cancer and now the loss of my grandmother. I still had no idea that melanoma can be deadly. My family, boyfriend, and friends knew it could be fatal, but they wanted to keep my spirits up. I remember my sister crying to me on the phone asking, “You’re not going to die are you?” I’m the big sister, so I had to be strong and pretend like I was fearless.
I had a lymph node removed and had a deeper and wider incision taken out of my back. I have a scar that is about 6 inches long and about ½ inch wide. The mole that was removed was no bigger than a pencil eraser. I had a tube in my back to drain fluids to avoid infection. I didn’t leave the house for three days. My husband asked if I wanted to go to a basketball game. That was the first time I left the house since surgery. I still had my drain tube in and was still a little sore. Before the basketball game, he took me to the elementary school where we had first met and he proposed to me.
Just to recap, I was diagnosed on October 31st, my grandmother passed away on November 14th, had surgery on November 28th, and got engaged December 1st. My life was a roller coaster, but luckily things were looking up. I was newly engaged and at my follow-up appointment I found out that the lymph node showed no signs of cancer. It was all gone!
I had instructions to stay out of the sun and wear sunscreen everyday, even in the winter. If I did vacation at the beach, I had to stay under an umbrella. I also had to be checked by my oncologist every three months.
Since then, I stayed under the umbrellas at the beach. But I vacationed in Las Vegas, Florida, Ocean City, Mexico, and other sunny places. I like to think that I kept in mind that I had cancer and tried to be careful, but I also didn’t live in a bubble. I have to admit, if I was just walking my dogs for a few minutes or was running outside for maybe a half hour, I wouldn’t wear sunscreen.
During the summer of 2011, I was at the beach for a few days while my family was vacationing there. I noticed a dark, asymmetrical mole on the back of my right leg. I had a bad feeling about it, but I have also had bad feelings about moles in the past few years that turned out to be nothing. I already had a check-up scheduled so I would ask my oncologist about it.
Dr. Edington thought it looked “weird enough” to remove. He sent it for testing and two weeks later, on July 26, 2011, I got the call that it was melanoma again. I started hysterically crying to his nurse, Rhea. I remember saying, “This is my second time with melanoma. I’m only 28. I’m too young to be going through this!”
A few days before my second diagnosis, I decided to take on the task of organizing the 1st Miles Against Melanoma 5k in Pennsylvania (www.MilesAgainstMelanoma5kPA.com). Amalyn Martin is the founder of Miles Against Melanoma, a non-profit organization to raise melanoma awareness. The money raised from the race is donated to melanoma research. She is from Missouri, which is where the first Miles Against Melanoma 5k was held. She is an inspiration to us all. With her help and assistance, many of us are doing our part to spread the word about melanoma awareness in cities across the United States. I’m amazed at the amount of support that I have received from family, friends, and complete strangers.
My surgery is coming up in a few days. They will perform the same procedure that they did in 2007. This melanoma is in stage 1A. My last melanoma was also in stage 1. I know they caught it early and the chances that it has spread are unlikely at this time, but I know that this will be a lifelong battle. Wearing sunscreen will be a part of my daily life. It took being diagnosed with melanoma for me to stop tanning. I still enjoy outdoor activities and sometimes I can’t avoid the sun, but when I am in the sun, I’ll do my best to protect myself. Unfortunately, I still have a few friends who use tanning salons. It annoys me because they have no idea how scary it is to get the call that you have cancer.
I didn’t write this story to get sympathy or have people feel bad for me. I hate to complain about having cancer because I know that in comparison to what others are going through, I’m very lucky. I feel healthy, never had to go through chemotherapy or radiation (knock on wood), have a great support system, and can basically live my day-to-day life as a healthy person. I want to live to grow old with my husband and family. I want to be here to say to my great-great-grandchildren, “When I was your age…” I don’t want my parents to lose a child. I want to be going to the mall and out to lunch with my sister when I’m 80 years old. I’m hoping that I haven’t damaged my skin to the point that it cuts my life short.
No matter how much money you have or how much you are loved, anyone can get melanoma. Cancer can’t always be cured. You can’t just write out a check to fix this problem or ask your parents to bail you out of this situation. With my story, I am hoping to spread melanoma awareness and want others to learn from my careless mistakes.
Feel free to contact me JessicaRogowicz@yahoo.com
~Jessica (Vega) Rogowicz