The longest night

Things are going fairly swimmingly these days until I spend a sleepless night convinced I have cancer.

It’s not just the 3AM crazies, it’s the “atypical mole” on my back I recently discovered, which feels like some bumpy scratchy thing that I have never noticed before. It’s also the thing I had the good sense–or idiocy, depending on your perspective–to capture in brilliant blurry iPhone camera glory that night, after about 18 tries that all yielded blackmail-worthy photographs of my ass instead.

When I was finally successful, let’s say it’s one thing to imagine what some brand new creepy thing on your skin can be; it’s another to actually see it and know for a fact that you are walking around accessorizing with a textbook image of a Melanoma.

That’s when panic set in.

Our brain in the age of the Internet -

I spent the next 30 minutes (the longest ever 30 minutes of my life since labor) doing anything but looking up “atypical mole” or “what do I do if I have a melanoma” on the Internet– until of course I finally cave. Even Candy Crush was no match for my need to uncover piss-poor information about my body from dubious sources, and that’s saying something.

So, like a shipwrecked crew finally discovering a banana tree after three days, I frenetically gobble down every awful photo, long-winded description, terrible prognosis on any site I can find.  And then, because this is what those of us without medical degrees do in the age of Too Much Information at Your Disposal, I come up with my very own diagnosis, and it was not a good one.

Humble suggestion: Never do this.

(You will ignore me. I ignore me. We are all idiots.)

Somehow sleep came, though I’m not sure how. Yesterday morning, I cuddled so long with the kids when they crept into bed with me, I didn’t even care if we’d be late to school. I somehow managed to sneak away to make the phone call at precisely 0800 hours when the dermatologist’s office opened, whispering into the phone,  I have a Melanoma on my back. Can he see me today?

Here I will cut to the chase and tell you here that it was not a Melanoma, thanks for nothing Dr. Google.

“Oh, isn’t aging fun?” the real doctor smiled, as he explained it was a (don’t click don’t click don’t clickSeborrheic Keratoses, more lovingly referred to as a barnacle. It’s an old person thing. An age spot. A crusty little puddle of spilled brown candle wax that makes its home on your back without even asking first. And it’s totally harmless–unless you’re a bikini model, in which case, get that thing the hell off your back before people think you’re over 29.

The lovely, lovely doctor returned to the room, took my hand and said, “I get it. I have kids too. It’s like you start thinking, I don’t want my kids to be motherless…”

I sat stunned at hearing this word out loud. I pushed back the beginnings of tears which stung my eyes at the mere mention.

It’s the thought you never want in your head for more than a fleeting nanosecond. While losing a child may be the worst thing any of us can imagine, I think that the thought of them losing us may be worse.


Brutal word.

I flipped through my mental rolodex of all the brave amazing, cancer survivors I know and  for the first time, I understood things better. Of course this wasn’t even close to what they have been through; not even one-millionth of what they have been through. But still, they were in my head now in a completely new way.

The doctor returned to do a full body check at which point, indeed there were some little freckles which were not freckles at all and which warranted immediate removal and further investigation. My skin scattered with the tiny punctures of numbing shots, he plucked them from my skin. Along with those damn skin tags, sublimely earned through two pregnancies.

I won’t miss them.

“Let’s clean up that blood,” he instructed the medical assistant who stood at the ready wielding mini bandages, and I craned my neck down for the first time to see little scarlet smudgy dots across my breasts and torso.

“Oh my God!” I said, “It’s like Game of Thrones down there!”

We laughed. And I knew I’d be okay.

But I also knew something drastic had changed. And it from now on, it would be much harder to dismiss friendly suggestions of fish oil supplements and eating more leafy green vegetables, of tightening your will with lawyers, and especially, of the SPF moisturizer and those wide-brimmed hats in the summer on the beach.


40 thoughts on “The longest night”

  1. Welcome to middle age! Sorry, but it comes with the territory. And, don’t worry, it gets worse. Hopefully the barnacle be the worst thing that ever happens to you.

    1. Yup, it gets worse…..and 40 years from now you’ll look back and laugh

  2. You’ve taken me right back to the day I found out I had cancer. I got the call at work, at my desk, right there in the open air environment. When the words came through the receiver, I thought I’d faint. All I could think was the word “motherless”. I was mortified. But I’m here, I’m a survivor, and I’m embracing life. Maybe it was a wake up call.

  3. Sorry for the fright. Glad it came out okay.

    Stupid Dr Google. Reminds me of when it was suggested to us that our oldest child might have a peanut allergy, and my husband and I both went online to learn everything we could. The longer I researched the more upset I became, and the more my husband found the better he felt. And my brother laughed and said, “And you use the same internet!”

  4. I have two of these, on the left side of my torso. I freaked out just like you did.

    Yay for being old!

  5. I knew what you were going to find out. I remember well my doctor nonchalantly telling me “it’s just an old age barnacle”. I hate that term, but it’s much easier to say, and to explain.

  6. Glad it turned out the way that it did.

    I’m often hit with the reality that for every milestone my girls have, for every, “Did you see her face changed?” there is a similar sentiment for my own mind and body. We don’t celebrate them, but in some ways it is a real gift, this parallel transformation from one stage to another.

  7. Liz, I just spent the last two days at a peds dentist and a peds endocrinologist. Ajax lost a tooth even though he is just three. It’s sent me to the dentist. There we discovered he lost the tooth because a new and bigger one is coming in! With a friend next door!
    This sent me to the endocrinologist with dire predictions of potential hormone or bone disorders.

    Nope. He’s just advanced. Tooth wise that is.

    Poor kid got large bone X-rays and blood work because he has big teeth too early. But with even a hint of medical disaster, or even annoyance, and we rush to the city, three nights in a hotel, and doctors up the butt. I don’t know whether to be proud of myself for my thoughtful and thorough parenting, or sick of myself due to my parenting choices through fear

    1. Oof Wendy…a kid’s problem is always worse than our own. Bone disorders? For fuck’s sake. Exhaling deeply for you.

  8. Funny how these things creep up on us, wake us from our torpor, make us swear to become more….healthy, grateful, mindful, ecumenical. Then one day we kinda realize we’re back on the old track! I think we just keep on keeping on until we find ourselves sleepless again one night. That’s probably what it means to be human.

  9. I got that cancer diagnosis once, and I was lucky, because all I had to go through was the mental war of losing a uterus without the nastiness of chemo and radiation, but, still, you imagine not being here for the people you love.

    Because I have such a sunny personality, every mole and sudden pain is a harbinger of death now. What fun!

    In a way, though, this is a deeply precious reminder of the fact that, despite all our petty selfishnesses, at root it’s our love and hope for others that matter to us most when we think the worst.

    1. I thought of you too Elan, and Holly and Jen…

      Your thought is so poignant, that a sunny personality doesn’t match the gloom and doom of an awful medical diagnosis. I will look to you as how to handle with grace, thoughtfulness and whatever good humor you can muster.

  10. I’m so glad it wasn’t a melanoma! What a scare.

    FWIW, I know people who have had melanoma and survived, including my own father, who had a melanoma removed from his arm something like 30 years ago. It really is worth checking our skin periodically- it is so much better to catch it early. I’m a fair-skinned person living in a part of the world with a lot of sun, so I try to take this stuff really seriously. It is hard. I miss the carefree feeling of my youth, when I’d just run outside to play without worrying about sunscreen, etc. But I don’t miss the sunburns!

    1. My father also had a few removed so now I know it’s a family thing. I’m glad that a scare got me to the doctor because now I’m going more. If there’s a silver lining. And obviously very happy your father is still here to tell the stories.

  11. So glad it was a crusty old age spot.
    I understand this long night…
    I’ve been experiencing joint pain, and web MD tells me I have an autoimmune disease – couple that with an anxiety disorder, and my brain does this trip at least three nights a week.
    Eat more leafy greens, Liz… because people love and need you. *As I pop three fish oil pills.*

    1. Rooting for you Jenni. And hoping for arthritis? Or uh…menstrual cramps? Something that goes away.

  12. I am so so glad that you’re ok and also that you have discovered the virtue of annual dermatology checks. AND grateful for your description. I once had a double mammogram call-back and all I could think about was my boys. And I thought I must be the only goofball obsessing on that, not chemo or hair or even dying.

    Have you read Wallace Stefner’s Crossing to Safety? It’s about a lot of things, among them a dying mother’s struggle to transfer her daughter’s dependence from herself to her husband before she dies. It’s agony watching her send her weeping child to daddy without embracing her first., so that by the time she is gone they will be a unit of comfort without her.
    Whenever I have a health scare, that’s where I go. Whenever I have a health scare my mind goes straight there and things get even worse. I wish I could un-read it.

    Your description was perfect and generous. But then, when are you otherwise?

    1. Oh God Cynthia, I don’t think I could read that. I have trouble just reading your description of it. I’m glad your double callback turned out to be nothing serious.

  13. Once I googled a symptom and came up with a “third nipple” diagnosis. Which was really the last thing that I needed at that moment.

  14. Oh my word, I have the exact same story! (and same diagnosis) Funny how kids can make us tough as nails and yet we can still be knocked over by a feather at the thought of… well, you know.

  15. How scary. I know the feeling. A few months ago, my hair started falling out. Then I felt a lump in my throat. An ultrasound showed a nodule on my thyroid. Based on its size and characteristics, it has a 94% chance of being malignant. I had to wait two very scary weeks for a biopsy. And I worried so much about my two young kids. When you are a mom, you fear death mainly because of those you would leave behind. I felt incredibly blessed when I got my results back two weeks ago and learned it wasn’t cancer. And it makes me more determined to support cancer research because I remember friends who died and left behind young children. I am still dealing with scary health issues, but it is nothing compared to the big scary C word.

    1. Debbie, I was holding my breath reading this. I certainly hope whatever it is gets the hell out of your body quickly.

  16. The golden nectar of the neurotic gods. The stuff Roz Chast, Larry David and the king of em all Woody call a living. Mama, I’m ok you’re ok, I think, and I thank you as always for your wit, your pen, your sassy style. In fact I litcherally today was wondering of you. So you could imagine my delight when I booted up just now and saw one of your fine ditties. Who ever knew ditty could be pluralised. Or that a mama tries to get away with British spelling lunacy. (Re: spelling of the word “plural” in its plural form). Alas, I digress. This is about you not me.

    Your vintagey looking neuroimage is snappy, too, but please accept as a friendly gesture when I say in my most kindest way to take that darn letter e out of the word judgment.

    Seriously, though, I am truly happy that it turned out to be nothing. Your contribution to the mama blogosphere is a good one and I hope continues for years to come. I can only think of that funny St Elmo’s Fire scene when they are sitting around the dining room table and the mom whispers the word “cancer.” Who knew …this is actually something people do in real life….they don’t even say the word. Who knows, maybe that is a good thing.

    Cheers to many more fruitful and happy years.

    1. This made me smile through and through Rachel, thank you for your own sass and wit too. And damn, I always alternate between judgment and judgement. It’s like I feel bad if one acceptable spelling gets more attention than the other acceptable spelling, poor things.

  17. I remember when my 20-week ultrasound with Tacy revealed “echogenic bowel” and I spent waaaaay too much time consulting Dr. Google. It’s a sickness in itself, this compulsive online research.

    It’s so scary to contemplate getting bad news, but I think it’s scarier to put off getting that news — or news that could put our minds at ease. I’m glad you were brave and proactive, my friend.

  18. You write about the experience so well, I can totally relate. It’s scary on a whole different level to consider what would happen IF when you’re a mom. Glad your derm had a great attitude about it as well 🙂 And that you checked out ok.

  19. I tell my patients (I’m a family physician) they are “Wisdom Spots”

    And also, my gray hair is actually “wisdom highlights”

    Those mortality-checks are difficult. Hang in there!

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