This week I went for my annual ‘skin’ check. Something I have been doing for a few years now. It was early Wednesday and already the temperature, boosted by an over arcing humidity threatened to crack the gauge for a September day.
The sun bore down on the road bleaching the cars around me as I sat in traffic, past the exit to Walden and south on route 95.
At this time of year, when the cool evenings and nights threaten the temperature of the water and the time to don protective clothing nears, I am excited when my schedule and the weather sync…the appointment would give me ample time to get to Walden for a swim before a meeting at one o’clock.
What could be better! Ninety one degrees fahrenheit and the cooling waters of the pond.
In the air conditioned clinical room at the dermatologist office, the nurse asks about my ‘skin’ history of sun exposure, and whether there is any family history of melanoma. Apart from removal of a pre cancerous BCC on my face a few years ago, I say there is none.
I think back to my teenage years. The memory still scorched on my brain of Sunday evenings standing in the kitchen of our Sydney home almost unable to move for the pain of sunburn on the back of my legs. Especially at the creases behind the knees. Of lazy Sunday’s lying on the beach at Freshwater, reading, only getting up to shift the position of my towel so I could chase the sun, as shade of the family beach umbrella threatened to shelter me. And the resultant prawn like patterns of pink and white as I left the beach at the end of the day.
Then the memory of my nieces and nephews, aged about seven or eight, telling me with fear how they couldn’t go out in the sun without sun screen, shirts and shoes on, (the familiar slogan in Australia in the 1990‘s….Slip, Slop, Slap…. For surely the ‘monster’ sun would ‘get’ them! And how I dressed my own children from neck to knee in factor 50 sun protection clothing, with hats to cover not only their heads but the remaining inch or of skin around their faces and necks when, as toddlers we visited Sydney.
And how today, when I go home to Australia, I see the kids playing during school recess with their hats on. Even in the winter. The ‘no hat, no play’ rule. Bare headed kids, lined up on benches remain seated in the shade while their classmates roar around the playground like helicopters.
Before the nurse leaves, I add with an almost apology, the explanation that I don’t lie around in the sun anymore but I do swim. And my back is as ‘brown as a berry.’
She looks at me quizzically, not knowing what I mean. Perhaps it is an Australian expression…
While I’m waiting for the doctor to arrive I read a couple of stories in Creative Non Fiction. I register despite my preoccupation, that I am waiting an awfully long time. I can’t be bothered to check, so i keep reading. A series of personal essays on survival in the most extreme circumstances.
Eventually the doctor arrives, then swiftly leaves again saying she came into the wrong room and will be back. (I bring my daughter to this doctor, and have come to know and respect her well, so I am not phased by this.)
When she reappears to do the skin check and thoroughly examines every mole and blemish on my aging body (and there seem to be new blemishes popping up all the time) she points out one, a tiny mole on my right hip, that may be a problem. She shows me a card with distinguishing characteristics of melanoma. A mole containing different pigments within it, uneven borders between it and the normal skin, or is an odd, assymetrical shape. I am now faced with what she says is a ‘shave‘ biopsy.
My first question of course, is if this will stop me from being able to swim today?
To my relief she replies that I should be fine.
She leaves and the nurse returns to set up, but first there is paperwork (a consent), more questions and a photo of the offending lesion.
Now I check the time, asking how long she thinks this will take? Not more than half an hour she responds. I am dismayed at this, wondering if I will have time to swim today anyway and thinking I might as well hear it all, ask about the worst case scenario should this prove to be a melanoma.
This single minded desire to swim confounds me. Especially when faced with the possibilities and the outcomes of possibilities of this tiny darkened area on my hip… Yet I also try and rein in my creative thinking and halt the ‘what if’s’ that start to shape themselves. Contain my anxiety while again I am left waiting for the return of the doctor.
I’ve learnt to build in extra time when I estimate deadlines, (It’s a mother skill set) and in under twenty minutes I am blissfully out of the office with a small bandaid on my right hip and a warning about “of course you’d stop if it started bleeding again.”
The thought wafts through my mind as to how while traversing the pond I would ever know until I was back at my starting point again anyway.
Plunging into Walden that day it wasn’t the water that first ‘hit’ me, it was the immense feeling of gratitude that I was able to be there at all. And the feeling of elation as I stroked powerfully further into the center of the pond, recognizing the heightened beauty of the world around me.
Understanding and acknowledging just how lucky I am to have Walden and the ability to swim long distance at all.
The doctor said it would be a week, but on Friday my mind is idly wondering about swimming. I think of the possibility that the biopsy will yield a result that will require a two of three inch incision in my hip for removal of potential cancer cells should the result be that the lesion is a melanoma.
A sure end to the swimming season for me this year.
Then I receive a message from the dermatologist. The biopsy result showed the mole is benign.
I felt doubly blessed remembering the afternoon about four weeks ago when I was hurrying dazed down the ramp to swim. The day I was asked by the Tibetan Buddhist nun if I would scatter the alter fragments blessed by the Dalai Lama into the pond.
I had also been going to the dermatologist, alarmed that a large dark mole on my back was cancerous. Mentioning this to the nun she had said “perhaps you will be surprised” to which I thought, “No, I’m pretty sure this is bad news.
The nun was right, I was surprised. It turned out to be nothing more than a mole after all.