I Wish it was ”Just Skin Cancer”
(A continuation of Jessica’s story “I Won’t Get Cancer, I’m too Young”)
Written on December 29, 2011
By: Jessica (Vega) Rogowicz
My story last left off a few days before my surgery for my second diagnosis of melanoma. I am a middle school math teacher and am lucky enough to have the summer months off work. My second diagnosis was on July 26, 2011. My summer officially ended on that day. I didn’t want beautiful, sunny days anymore. I wanted all gloomy and rainy days. Anytime I was outside, I felt like I needed to get indoors as quickly as possible. I felt like a prisoner. On rainy days, I felt free. I felt like I could walk outside and not wonder how badly I was damaging my skin. Melanoma, once again, put me in a constant state of paranoia.
Unfortunately, my surgery was not scheduled until August 24, 2011. This was supposed to be my first day back at work. I had almost a month to sit around and wonder where this was going to take me and if this would be more severe than the first diagnosis. The uncertainty and waiting was the worst part. I love having my summers off work and having the time to relax and enjoy friends and family. After July 26th, I just wanted it to be over as quickly as possible.
The day before surgery I had to go the hospital for an MRI to find where the sentinel lymph node was located. Basically, a tiny amount of a tracer, either a radioactive tracer (radioisotope) or a blue dye, is injected into the tumor site. The lymph nodes were marked with a permanent marker and removed the next day during my surgery. The sentinel lymph nodes are the first place that the cancer would have spread to. If cancer was found in the sentinel nodes, then I would need more treatment than just this surgery.
My parents and husband came to the surgery with me. I felt so guilty for putting three people I love dearly through so much stress. I had a deep area removed from the back of my right leg where the melanoma was found. I had two lymph nodes removed from my groin. They removed the sentinel lymph node where the cancer would have first spread. Depending on the outcome, that would determine if I would need further surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation. Luckily, the hours following my surgery, I wasn’t in much pain. I was instructed to “take it easy” and stay off my feet as much as possible. The area where the lymph nodes were removed was the sorest. If it didn’t heal properly, I would have needed a drain tube inserted to avoid infection.
I remember pulling into my driveway after arriving home from the hospital and seeing two bouquets of flowers in front of my driveway. It was yet another reminder of the love and support that I have from my family and friends. I received so many calls, cards, and visits from friends and family who were supporting me all the way.
In the days following my surgery, I was in a lot of pain. I had difficulty sleeping, standing, laying, and sitting. I could not get comfortable. The physical pain was a constant reminder of the cancer. The sentinel nodes were sent for a biopsy and I wouldn’t have the results for at least a week. I cried every single day. I knew the chances were unlikely that it spread because it was stage 1A, but I didn’t want to necessarily count on it and take my health for granted anymore than I already have in my life.
A week later, I was back to work. I was supposed to take at least a full week off work, but I was stubborn and didn’t want to start the school year off by missing so many days. I was very sore at the end of each day and basically slept the rest of the evening after work. I slept because of the physical pain, but also because I was extremely depressed. Never in a million years did I think I could get cancer in my 20s, let along twice in my 20s.
Luckily, I received the call from Dr. Edington that the cancer hadn’t spread and it was caught early. Even though I got the good news, I still cried every day. It was such a traumatizing experience. I think the physical pain I was in after the good news was just a constant reminder that I had cancer…twice. It wasn’t until a month or so after surgery that I started feeling like my old self again and stopped crying everyday. My husband has been there for me through everything and has supported me the whole way, but he was so lost as to what to do when I would cry all the time. He didn’t understand how I could get good news and be cured, yet still cry. Without going through cancer treatment, it’s very difficult to understand. It’s hard for me to put into words why I was crying. I guess because I was beginning to realize that this is going to be a lifelong battle. For the four years in between my first and second diagnosis, I was careful. I wore sunscreen, haven’t been sunburned, etc., but the cancer still returned.
So where could I put all this negative energy? I have been through so much since my first diagnosis and needed an outlet for everything I had gone through. As I stated in “I Won’t Get Cancer, I’m Too Young,” I decided to Direct Miles Against Melanoma 5k in Pittsburgh, PA, where I live. The 5k is a lot of work, but it was my way of turning a negative experience into something positive and meaningful.
I had the honor of meeting Amalyn Martin, the founder of Miles Against Melanoma. She invited me to be part of a public service announcement that was filming for melanoma awareness. My husband and I went to St. Louis for a long weekend trip. I had a great time filming the public service announcement and spending the weekend with Amalyn. We saw the St. Louis Arch and did some sightseeing. We also had the chance to meet and have dinner with Stephanie Leibengood, Mrs. Kansas 2010. Overall, it was such an amazing experience and I have made lifelong friends with those I met in St. Louis, MO. Amalyn Martin has been one of my biggest supporters from hundreds of miles away. The whole experience with getting involved with Miles Against Melanoma 5k PA has completely changed my life for the better.
Facebook seems to get a lot of negative publicity, but it has helped me to connect with so many who have personally been affected by melanoma. Shortly after returning from St. Louis, Rachael Burbank contacted me through Facebook. Rachael is the best friend of Glenna Kohl of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Glenna was a beautiful girl who lost her life to melanoma in 2008 at the age of 26. Her story was featured in Cosmopolitan in 2009. The article was titled, “A Death by Suntan at Age 26.” I remember reading this article in the magazine. I always felt like I was the only one who was going through skin cancer at a young age. I saved the magazine and that story really touched my heart. Rachael contacted me to ask if I would be interested in being a keynote speaker as a melanoma survivor at the 3rd Annual Angel’s Masquerade Ball. The ball is a fundraiser for Glenna’s Fund. The proceeds are used to purchase umbrellas for the lifeguard chairs on the beach where Glenna was a lifeguard for many years. Fortunately, my husband and I were able to attend the ball. It was a complete honor to be asked to attend and speak at the event. During the long weekend, we were able to fit in some sightseeing in Boston, Plymouth, and Salem as well. My raffle ticket was drawn to win a print of a painting of Glenna walking on the beach. I now have the painting framed and hanging in my livingroom and I will always treasure it. I like to think that was Glenna’s way of telling us that she was there with us and she knew how much it meant to me to be at that event honoring her life. My speech went well and I hope it really encouraged the 250+ people who were in attendance to realize that it’s “not just skin cancer.” While I was giving my speech, you could hear a pin drop. I hope that was a good sign. Maybe I was too graphic or it was too depressing, but my goal was to help spread awareness, so call me Debbie Downer if need be.
The weekend after I returned from Massachusetts, I was celebrating my 29th birthday. I found out on my birthday on November 2, 2011, that my husband I were expecting our first child! We wanted a baby for so long and tried for a long time to have one. God has a mysterious way of working. I needed to take care of my health issues before it was time to be a mommy. Excited does not even begin to describe how we felt. I am just finishing up my first trimester. I try to not live in fear of dying and I don’t like to constantly focus on cancer. I would be lying if I said that from time to time, I am scared that I won’t live to see my children grow up. I hope I never have to battle melanoma again, but if I do, I will fight to stay alive and will do all that I can do to prevent any further sun damage to my skin. It will be an extremely busy summer with planning the 5k and being due three weeks later with our first baby, but it will be a summer full of wonderful emotions.
I went to another follow-up appointment with my oncologist last week. There are three spots that he wants to monitor. He marked them so that my husband can keep an eye on them, since two of them are on my back. I was relieved that nothing had to be removed, but I was reminded yet again that it’s not like having a broken leg in which your doctor appointments will eventually end. I will see an oncologist and a dermatologist every 3 to 4 months for the rest of my life. This will be a lifelong battle. But I’m alive, so I can’t complain.
And that brings to me to 2012. The planning of MAM5kPA is going great. I get a little overwhelmed at times, but it is all worth it. Our long version of the public service announcement is complete. I have watched it several times and it brings tears to my eyes each time. I know that June 16, 2012, the day of the 5k race, will be an extremely emotional day for me. It definitely won’t stop there. I will continue to do my part to raise awareness and keep Miles Against Melanoma in the Pittsburgh area. Hopefully it will grow more and more each year.
I want people to know that it’s not “just skin cancer.” If you go to any search engine and type in “melanoma,” the description usually starts off with, “Melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer.” By telling a skin cancer patient, “It’s just skin cancer,” you are basically telling them that it’s nothing to worry about. There are so many people that have lost loved ones to skin cancer. Remember, cancer is cancer. I am extremely grateful that my skin cancer was caught in its early stages, but no one should ever take for granted that skin cancer can destroy your organs and overall health just as much as any other cancer. It’s a cancer that could have taken my life and have taken the lives of many.
I hate to compliment melanoma in any manner, but it has made me a better person. It has helped me mature more as an adult, value my health, and treasure my time with my family and friends. I will continue to fight for my health, teach my own children the ways to stay safe in the sun, and educate others to realize that no, it’s not just skin cancer.
Jessica (Vega) Rogowicz