This is part of a series about extraordinary experiences in personal health. Share yours at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The clinic called me and left a message on a Friday. I remember this because I went on a date on Saturday, and I already knew something was wrong because they don't call you to say everything's fine.
My date was like, "Are you okay? You seem preoccupied."
I said, "I'm pretty sure I have skin cancer."
He was like, "Yeah, right."
But I just knew. I called the clinic back on Monday morning, and they said to come in to discuss my test results. At that point, I said, "Just tell me. I think I already know. Do I have melanoma?"
They said yes. The emotions came rolling in. I was just crying, crying, crying, crying. I knew it was serious.
I had started going to the tanning salon when I was about 16, but I didn't really start going regularly till I got into working out at the gym. I'm very fair, so people would say, "Your muscle definition would be better if you started tanning." And you're impressionable when you're younger, right?
The tanning salon was right next door to the gym, so it was easy to go right there afterward. They offered unlimited packages, so you could go every day. They had a maximum number of minutes you could use the tanning bed, but that was the extent of how much they controlled anything, really. I'd go anywhere from two to five days a week because you just want to get your money's worth when you're young and you have an unlimited pass. So I was tanning from the age of 16 till about 21 or 23.
When you're in your teens, you think you're invincible. I was healthy, I was working out, I looked fit, I was eating well. It was really for vanity.
I've always had moles on my body. The mole that turned into melanoma had been there for as long as I can remember. I don't know how my mom knew, but she kept bugging me about it to get it checked out. She thought the colour was looking weird and it was getting bigger. It was on my upper back, near my right scapula. It's not a spot you look at. Had it been on my arm or leg where I could see it easily, I would probably have been more concerned.
But I was super-busy at school, so it wasn't a priority then. I wasn't really concerned until I saw a lymph node pop up near my right clavicle. By that time, I was in my last year of nursing school, so I knew these things didn't just pop up for no reason.
I went to the university clinic, and they told me they thought it was just a cyst. I asked the doctor to also look at the mole on my back, and she thought it looked normal to her. But I insisted on a referral to a dermatologist. I'm really lucky because had I not been in health care, I probably would have just said, "Okay, the doctor thinks it's fine," and just left it.
By the time I got my initial diagnosis, I was at stage three already. It was pretty far. One more stage and you're metastatic, where it spreads from the origin. So I was pretty freaked out.
The dermatologist told me I had a 50-50 chance of surviving five years. I was like, I have five years to basically get my life together. In nursing school, we were talking about personal directives and powers of attorney and wills. So I was thinking I don't want my family dealing with paperwork and all this stuff once I'm gone.
Afterward, I sat outside the university hospital, bawling my eyes out and basically planning my funeral arrangements. I never thought I'd get cancer. What the hell? I was 25.
I actually went through quite a few treatments before my next recurrence. It went from my back to under my armpit. I had surgery to remove all the lymph nodes in my armpit. And then in 2011, it went to up my neck. I had a neck dissection, which is surgery to remove the lymph nodes, and then it went up to my brain. In 2012, I started having these headaches, like migraines. I had developed a brain tumour the size of a golf ball. So I had surgery followed by radiation therapy and after that, I developed epilepsy as a secondary side effect as a result of brain surgery.
By the time it's in your brain, it's technically termed malignant metastatic melanoma and they consider you as terminal.
But I'm okay now. The epilepsy part was actually the worst because I had so many side effects from the anti-epileptic medications before the doctors found the right one that worked. I haven't had a seizure in three years now and as of June 1, I'll be four years cancer-free. I'm waiting till the five-year mark because at five years, they say you're in remission. I'm really lucky. It wasn't my time.
Now, I tell people: Don't be stupid like me. Really, I did it to myself. It's like people smoke and they get lung cancer. But really, I didn't know the full extent of the dangers.
After I was diagnosed, I went back to the tanning salon to tell the owner I have melanoma. His response to me – and this is someone who's in the industry and should know more than the average person about the dangers of tanning beds – was: "My mom had skin cancer. It's no big deal. It's like getting over the flu."
I was like, "Wow. If you don't know the dangers, that's scary."
With basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, yeah, a lot of the time, those are cut out and you're fine. Not that I'm minimizing those cancers, because often they come back over and over again and they cause permanent damage to your skin. But I was dumbfounded he even said that to me.
I tell people now, "Just be proud of your skin." We're the skin colour we are for a reason, and tanning is actually your body's response to injury. When you're lighter-skinned, you tan because your body, in order to protect itself from the damage from UV radiation, is making more pigment, more melanin in the skin.
So, yeah. I'm pale and proud. I made a mistake. I'm bearing that mistake. Learn from my mistake.
Violetta Ambrozuk, 32, is a registered nurse who lives in Edmonton. She is an advocate for melanoma awareness and a member of the Alberta Society of Melanoma.
As told to Wency Leung