Author, Michigan State University alumnus and MSU Gran Fondo participant David L. Stanley shares excerpts from his memoir “Melanoma, It Started with a Freckle.”
“This is the face of cancer,” I thought as my virtual image stared back at me from my bathroom mirror. I looked in my eyes. When I gazed at the right side of my face, I could see laugh lines around my blue eyes. My forehead was relaxed. Wrinkly, as befits a fifty year old man, but relaxed. I could watch my breath ruffle my nostrils and fog the mirror as I worked my shaving brush around my nose. The right side of my face looked fine. It was shaved. It was clean. It was… my face.
But the left side; that was not my face. The left side of my face was a patchwork quilt woven by a surgeon’s exquisite touch. I turned my head so I could see my face’s left side and studied the image in the mirror. Terror and disgust stared back at me. I wanted to smash the mirror. I wanted to form a fist and drive it through the looking glass, through the drywall, and out the other side, cuts and broken knuckles be damned.
The left side of that face – that side of my face now belonged to a monster; a monster that would take over its host’s body and quite willingly rot it out from the inside. A monster called melanoma.
Melanoma starts out easily enough. A small clump of your skin’s pigment cells break free from their genetic on/off switches. Much like an anthill, little goes on that can be seen from the surface. Yet, below the skin’s upper boundary, your wayward melanocytes are busy as they tunnel about below the surface. A tumor five millimeters across may harbor dozens of tunnels, each ten times longer than the tumor, as the tumor readies itself to spread throughout your body.
My first glimpse at the face of cancer barely rattled me. A needle stick and a surgical scrape, followed a short time later by another needle stick and a snip of skin, plus two stitches and a band-aid. Easy. Painless. Done.
My second glimpse at the face of cancer brought the terror of cancer home like a leather-masked man with a chainsaw in a grindhouse movie. This cancer was back and it was angry.
This cancer brought its own set of biopsies. From the first biopsy, there were red and blue tattoo scars. There were forty small, neatly tied sutures, in a square one and one-quarter inches directly in front of my ear.
From the second biopsy, there was another larger square which emanated out from that first square in an odd optical illusion. There were sixty more stitches, still small and neatly tied, marking the territory like a firebreak. More tattoo dye, still alternating red and blue, underlay the needlework.
The third biopsy drew another line further out around the original lesion. This limit was nearly as long as any two of the other tattooed lines combined.
I was unable to shave around the operative site. Grizzled hair sprouted at odd angles in, around, and over the nested squares. That face resembled a farmer’s cutover corn field in October; the remnants of cut down corn stalks, nibbled and shredded by deer and raccoon, bewhiskered and dead brown.
That face. That face was not my own. That face belonged to melanoma and I was driven to reclaim it as my own.
My melanoma started with a freckle. I had a freckle on the left side of my face. I couldn’t see it. My wife, my lovely Cath, R.N., B.S.N, M.S.N. noticed it one September evening in 2005.
“You got a weird thing on your face,” she said.
Stay tuned for more excerpts. David L. Stanley, B.S., M.A., is a Michigan-based writer, voice-over actor and audiobook narrator. He writes regularly for DadsRoundtable.com on cancer living and care. Stanley’s freelance work has appeared in Bridge.com, JTA, Peloton, ROAD, Stand, and Velo magazines. Follow him on Twitter @dstan58.