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Cancer and My Learning Curve

Submitted by Melissa Burns

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer it was traumatic and serious. I was pregnant with my second daughter, I was stage IIb triple negative and I was 32 years old. l went through treatment and the years following, listening to all of the things I should do to help prevent another diagnosis of breast cancer.

  • No alcohol (if ever there was a time it was needed!),
  • No red meat (could not imagine life without filet mignon and burgers),
  • Wear natural deodorant (gross),
  • Don’t breathe in when opening a bag of microwave popcorn…um ok?
  • Don’t use the microwave…seriously? can’t do it
  • Use only green cleaning products…not going to happen, its expensive and they are largely not as effective…in my opinion.

The list goes on and on and some I slowly came around to naturally as I aged like eating well and exercising. I also stopped drinking a few years back but according to some reports a glass of wine could actually help you. Many of these claims are contradictory or have not been proven 100 percent. At 32 years old with two children under two, I could not jump on board to change how I LIVED my life since cancer had just completely turned it upside down. I adopted a motto of “YOLO”, you only live once. I made the conscious decision to live my life as I always had making limited changes. This was also due in part to my cancer not being hormone based and the doctors not having the answer we all want which is the WHY.

Ten years go by and the cancer stays away. I was overjoyed and at the point where I didn’t expect a recurrence. But just because you have beat one cancer does not mean you won’t get another.

A year ago I was diagnosed with melanoma. I had been regularly visiting the dermatologist and each visit they would take three of my moles. Usually at least one would come back as mildly dysplastic and they would have to go a bit deeper and sew me up with stitches. This time I was not shocked when they took the one on my leg because it was darker than the others and I had noticed it. When they called back and said it was melanoma, I was catapulted back in time to my first cancer diagnosis. The fear was back, treatment talk was again part of my conversations, surgery and three month follow ups were back on my calendar. It was early spring, I did my surgery, wore a compression stocking, stopped my exercising routine, and took care of it.

Summer came and I heard all of the warnings (stay out of the sun, wear sunscreen and protective clothing) and I obeyed half-assed. Again cancer was disrupting how I LIVED and I didn’t want to change. I wore more sunscreen but beyond that it was life as usual. I had always been a lover of the sun and a great tan. From the days of baby oil and tin foil trays, to my college years spent on Virginia Beach and the tanning beds. I look back at pictures now and cringe at how unnatural it looked. But back then we did not know that the sun and tanning beds caused cancer. But I did know cigarettes could and still chose to smoke so I am not certain my choices would have been different. After all I was young and invincible.

My parents live in Cape Cod and each summer my girls and I go for a visit. That summer I heard it from my mother about the sunscreen and the protective clothing but wouldn’t have dreamed of covering up head to toe to go to the beach. As it was my mother was wearing long sleeves and yoga type pants to the beach and I was hearing the comments from other beach goers. I was putting more sunscreen on my girls and I was wearing a really good facial sunscreen daily as my routine. These were my changes but I still wanted a tan.

This spring I was diagnosed with yet another melanoma. This time it was on the same boob that tried to kill me before! I had tram flap reconstruction when I had breast cancer so they took my stomach skin to create my breast. The skin I loved to tan back in my bikini days was now on my boob. It was funny in the beginning because I recognized a mole that had now moved north. But this particular mole developed on the scar from my surgery and was directly linked to sun damage. This was proof that what I had done in my youth was coming back to get me as my scars had not seen the light of day in 11 years. This time I started to wake up.

My surgery was more in depth literally and figuratively. It was also traumatic. Not only was I having surgery on the same breast as before but I had become comfortable with how my scarred breast looked. It was fairly symmetrical to the other and just had a scar going around the outside. Now I had a 4 inch scar going from 1 o’clock straight down to my fake nipple. The skin was pulled so the circle I had around it before did not meet up in the same way. This was emotionally difficult and it took awhile to heal inside and out. I also couldn’t exercise for 8 weeks, had to limit my movement while we were in the process of moving…again cancer was slowing me down. But this time I listened.

This summer I have been out in the sun very little, While at the pool I sit in the shade, I at least wear a high quality facial sunscreen on my face each day and this year I was the one on the beach in Cape Cod that was covered head to toe. I wore a sun protective tunic and Capri leggings as well as a baseball hat. I fielded comments from others but when I told them I have had 2 Melanomas it tended to shut them up. I was amazingly comfortable and could move better in this outfit than a bathing suit. The clothing was not hot to wear and a bonus was it covered my cellulite!!

Now I have the task of passing on the lessons I have finally learned to my girls. Unfortunately because I have a teen and a tween, this is an uphill battle right now. It’s all about the cute bathing suit in their young eyes. I will remain on them because as my long cancer journey has finally taught me, how we treat our bodies will have an effect on us in the future. I am just glad that the one I have been given is so strong and patient with me as I vow to take care of her the best that I can from this day forward…with the exception of a filet mignon once in a while and regular deodorant.

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