The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Eyes of an Advocate

by Tara SmithSurvivor, MelanomaFebruary 15, 2023View more posts from Tara Smith

We all know that 2020 was quite the year for all of us. The global pandemic shut everything down. Life as we knew it completely changed.

Imagine you’re a young adult, working, just trying to survive, hustling, and grinding away…and then finding out you have cancer.

I was 31. I was working a retail position and getting ready to move into my first apartment, had a date set and everything… 

Let me take you back…

I’m a fair-skinned, Caucasian woman that enjoyed a little sun but always did what I needed to do to stay healthy. I used sunscreen and wore t-shirts when I was out for longer periods of time, but I’ve never used a tanning bed a day in my life. I saw a dermatologist yearly, whom I also hadn’t been too pleased with. I had a lot of moles on my body that were prominent, and they sometimes irritated my skin if an article of clothing rubbed on it. I decided to finally act on it.

My friend told me that our mutual PCP’s office had a skin care clinic. I decided to go get a second opinion, and that second opinion saved my life! I want to say this was around the time COVID-19 was really hitting the states—March 2020.

During my first skin care clinic appointment, I believe they did a shave biopsy on a mole that I had on my shoulder blade. I addressed concerns about it growing bigger and darker. It was removed, and as time went on, I noticed pigment coming back within a couple of months of the initial removal. I went back and addressed concerns about the reoccurrence. After I went back, the doctor mentioned that sometimes they didn’t get in deep enough and would re-shave it but that it does happen sometimes, so they would re-biopsy. Sure enough, a few weeks later I got the call that I was diagnosed with Melanoma in situ (non-staged skin cancer).

I remember being in the waiting room of the salon getting the call and being completely floored. I had cancer! Do I need surgery? Am I going to need chemo and radiation? How could my dermatologist miss this? I’m too young for this to happen—I’ve never even used a tanning bed!! 

When I finally had my wide excision done, the dermatologist said, “Thank goodness the person that found this did when they did,” and I said, “Yeah…no thanks to you—you didn’t listen!”

We are all human, we make mistakes…but I felt betrayed, mistrusted, and vulnerable. Here I am, laying here with stitches in my back, fighting cancer because of someone’s negligence to listen. I always tell people now, “Listen to you and your body. You know it more than anyone else.” 

The wide excision was an outpatient procedure done at my dermatologist’s office. When I came back to get the stitches removed, we found out that the melanoma was aggressive. It went from a .35 to a .85 mm cancer within 4-6 weeks of initial diagnosis. It was then classified as a 1b. The surgery pushed my move back. About a week later, I was finally able to move into my first apartment and away from my abuser’s home.

Because of that depth change, it was suggested that I see an oncologist to have my lymph nodes checked to make sure the cancer hasn’t spread. This happened in October 2020. They injected a radiation tracer around the original site of the melanoma to determine which lymph node had the biggest risk of cancer. The next day, I had the surgery (which was the first time I’d ever had any kind of surgery where I had to be put under) and had a bit of a longer recovery time, but thankfully there was no risk of any cancer spreading.

After recuperating from that procedure, I sought a new dermatologist and made my mind up that I didn’t care how far I had to travel. I needed a doctor that was willing to at least hear and address my concerns. I now see my dermatologist every three months and my oncologist every six months. I’m two years out of being cancer free. I just had a removal that was at higher risk, but thankfully it was caught early and nothing came of it.

I urge everyone, whether it’s cancer-related or not, to be your own advocate! Your insurance and your hard-earned money are going towards these appointments and treatments…you deserve the best care you can get. Never be afraid to find a second opinion. Be willing, vulnerable, and open to asking questions. Be your own advocate.

After finishing treatment, I decided to get my life back together and keep going on my own health journey. I sought a nutritionist to help me get a meal plan together and lose some weight. I then decided in late 2021 that I would train for my first half marathon, which is how I found out about Young Adult Survivors United (YASU). I ran in the Pittsburgh Marathon’s Run for a Reason program. I lost over 110 pounds and ran in my first half marathon to help support the fundraising efforts for YASU. The rest is history.

Sometimes I go to my screenings, and it feels like I fall flat on my face. Sometimes I feel like Muhammed Ali. The one thing is…be an advocate for yourself. Research, ask questions, and find your tribe! It’s the best thing you can do when the times are tough.

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