Let’s Talk About Moles

Hey there! Popping in today with a kind of personal post.

Something I feel like we don’t talk about that often is people living with precancerous conditions. I’m only bringing this up right now because I just went through a teeny tiny bit of a scare (but it appears I’m okay, which is why I feel comfortable writing this post).

Most people will have a dysplastic mole at some point in their life. A dysplastic mole is a mole that has begun mutating but isn’t cancer yet (and might never become cancer). Generally, these are scary, but ultimately something people shrug off, because they get the one or two bad moles removed and never have to worry about it again.

I’d had about half a dozen dysplastic moles by the time I was in middle school. More since then. I used to joke that I bought my old dermatologist his BMW, because he had to perform so many surgeries on me growing up. When I switched to a new dermatologist last year, she told me it appeared most if not all of my moles will eventually become dysplastic. No telling which will be the ones to actually progress to full-blown melanoma. (Because I’m related to people who have had melanoma, this is called Familial Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma Syndrome. It’s fun.) Right now, I have a couple visibly dysplastic moles, but we’re just monitoring them instead of removing them, because this new dermatologist doesn’t want to turn me into any more of a dartboard than she has to.

The closest I’ve ever come to cancer was in 2014. I got a sunburn while on vacation in Paris—ONE sunburn—and two of the moles on my right arm mutated so fast, I almost missed them. I was away at college when I noticed the weird scab on my arm that just wouldn’t go away. I was going to wait until I went home for Christmas to get it looked at, but thank God I panicked and called my mom. She scheduled an emergency appointment with the dermatologist. He realized the weird scab was exactly where a normal-looking mole used to be and cleared his schedule so he could remove it immediately.

The dermatologist had to dig all the way down to my muscle to get the entire mole out, because it had been burrowing for my bloodstream. He had to sever nerves. It took something like twenty stitches to pull my healthy tissue back together. My arm is still a little numb there. He implied that if I had waited until Christmas, I likely would be dead.

Flash forward to a couple weeks ago: a strange scab appeared on the old surgery scar from the other 2014 mole. This one had been smaller and the surgery had been much less extensive (although he did have to cut it out twice, because he missed some of the affected tissue the first time). Still, any unexpected change to skin when you’re essentially in a constant state of pre-cancer is worrisome. Especially one directly atop the place a dysplastic mole used to be.

But here’s the thing: I can’t go to a dermatologist every time my skin does something strange. I’d be living at the doctor’s office if I did that. (I have really weird skin overall. Throughout puberty, it was almost impossible for me to tan or get a sunburn; my skin just absorbed all of the radiation instead, feeding the dysplasia. Now I tan if I even think about stepping outside.)

So, instead I had to sit and wait. I took pictures every couple days of the scab to track how it was changing. I tried to think back to see if I could remember bumping my arm at any point (but the scab appeared right after a really stressful few days, so honestly there are a lot of holes in my memory from them). And for the past couple weeks, I’ve had to work, write, buy groceries, train for a 5K, see friends—knowing there might be a malignant tumor growing in my arm.

As of a couple days ago, the scab is gone. The scar is back to normal. It appears I really did hit my arm and simply don’t remember it.

Right now, I’m okay. But even with this little victory, I still live with the knowledge that at any point in time, some part of my skin might turn traitor and try to kill me. It is a constant worry at the back of my mind. And I try not to let it bother me, but it’s always there, because if I don’t pay attention, I could miss something. So it’s a balancing act: learning not to freak out about everything little thing, but also staying on my guard enough to catch anything bad before it turns deadly.

All of this to say: Cancer sucks. Even when you don’t actually have cancer–you’re just monitoring for it–it sucks.

People like me have to live with a genetic predisposition for our skin to self-destruct. If you’re lucky enough not to, don’t put yourself at unnecessary risk. Please put on sunscreen. Wear a hat. Take care of yourself.

I have very little control over what happens to me (although, believe me, I still do everything I can to keep my skin healthy). If you do have control, take advantage of that gift.

And if you’re also living with a precancerous condition: Hang in there. Keep breathing. We’ll get through this together.