Jun 12, 2015 1:00 AM

Author: Melissa Shepard

It all started when I was pregnant with my second child. I was 29 years old and a mole on my right hip that I’d had my whole life started to bother me; it was itchy and tender and stuck out. Moles can change during pregnancy and my growing belly was rubbing on my clothes more, so it didn’t seem alarming.

I had never been to a dermatologist before, but eventually the mole started bothering me enough to get it checked. The doctor biopsied it and sent it in to be tested. I didn’t hear anything for a few weeks and figured that meant everything was okay, but then I got THE phone call. It was melanoma.

Everything At Once

Because of the depth of the melanoma, it required additional surgery and since I was pregnant I had to wait.  All the doctors told me it was a pretty low likelihood it had spread, but I still spent the last month of my pregnancy nervous about what they might find. Soon after giving birth they preformed surgery and ran additional tests that confirmed the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. I was started on chemotherapy almost immediately and the side effects were incredibly debilitating.

So of course everything hits at once. A month after having a baby and starting chemotherapy my husband was laid off from his job. In order to get the insurance we so desperately needed, I had to go back to work. The only place I could find a part-time nurse practitioners job was at the Huntsman Cancer Institute working for none other than the melanoma department.

Keep Your Enemies Close

I don’t necessarily suggest working in a department focusing on the ailment you’re suffering from. I was very emotional and my mood went up and down. At times it felt like it helped me and at other time it felt like it was a hindrance to understanding patients.

Working closely with melanoma while I was battling it made me think of the saying, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Being close to melanoma gave me that power to truly understand my disease. If it did come back, I’d know my options and there was some empowerment in that. I’d always suggest my patients do the same thing.

Were You Careful?

I ended up finishing eight months of chemo before opting to stop that course of treatment. The side effects were making me sicker and sicker. At that point I went into remission and started surveillance with regular screenings and tests.

One of the biggest questions I still get is, “Were you careful about sun protection?” And the truth is no, not really. I grew up in Alaska and my mother managed a tanning salon for a couple years. My sisters were older and cheerleaders and were tanning all the time and I wanted to be like them. Even after my mom stopped managing the salon, I still went a “normal” amount. Not to mention I was also a lifeguard, which comes with its fair amount of sun exposure.

The Best Line of Defense

I’ve thankfully been cancer free for seven years and recently had my first post-cancer baby. It felt like I was closing a circle that started with being diagnosed while pregnant with my daughter all those years ago.

Most patients find these melanomas themselves like I did. Even those going in for a yearly skin check often spot them on their own. When I first noticed my mole it didn’t look like there was anything wrong with it. It was round, one color, had normal borders, and was just slightly raised but my attention was drawn to it and it likely saved my life.

It all comes back to keeping your enemy close. Learn everything you can and do everything you can to keep yourself safe. You are the best line of defense in making sure you stay healthy. 

Melissa Shepard

Melissa Shepard is a guest blogger for University of Utah Health Care.


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