When I was 13, I discovered a malignant tumor on my 18-month-old niece.
I was rubbing her back in hopes of getting her down for a nap. At the base of her spine, my fingers grazed a small lump that felt harder than muscle, softer than bone. But even more startling than the lump itself, which wasn’t really all that remarkable, was the immediate gut feeling I got from touching it. To this day, over 25 years later, I still remember vividly how the hair on my arms stood up instantly, like I had touched a painless electric fence. And how I instinctively knew — not wondered, but knew — that something about that tiny lump was very, very wrong.
To everyone’s astonishment but my own, I was right.
It turned out to be the tip of the figurative iceberg, a minor indication of a tumor that was actually taking up most of the space in her tiny abdomen, wrapping itself dangerously around her spine. It was rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive pediatric muscle cancer, and our family was suddenly thrust into a club we never wanted to be a part of.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending; after a long and arduous road of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, my niece was declared cancer-free — and in fact just celebrated her 27th birthday a few weeks ago. That’s wonderful, and I’m so thankful that she made it through, but that’s not why I’m telling you this.
I tell you this because I want you to understand a little better what I went through when, once again, I got that same panicky gut feeling years later … only this time, with my own son.
I had noticed the brown spot low on his hip once before, but it barely registered; I just thought it was a freckle or a harmless mole, or even a scab, something normal for my rough-and-tumble kid. My son was 11, well past the toddler running-around-naked-at-every-chance stage, and no longer in need of me bathing or dressing him, so I didn’t see that particular part of his body very often any more.
But one night as I was tucking him into bed, the waistband of his pajama pants scrunched down, revealing the dark spot that once again caught my eye. Only this time, it looked much more … sinister.
“Cameron, how long has this been here?” I asked, furrowing my brow and trying to recall the last time I had seen it. It had definitely been a while.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Months?”
“Well … does it hurt?”
“Nope. But sometimes it bleeds,” he said casually, as though a crusty, bleeding mole was the most normal thing in the world.
Squinting, I reached down and gingerly touched it … and there it was: that ominous chill leapfrogging through my veins, something I had only ever experienced one other time in my life. And that time, it had been cancer.
Though I played it cool for Cameron’s sake, dismissing it with a “hmm” to match his casual tone and kissing him goodnight like always, I was absolutely frantic inside.
Enveloped in the privacy of my bathroom, I cried scalding tears of fear and mom guilt. How long had that been there? Why the hell hadn’t I paid more attention, watched it more closely? What if it were a situation like my niece’s — where one tiny imperfection on the skin belied the absolute chaos spreading throughout her insides?
I called a dermatologist the very next morning, and to my surprise, was able to get Cameron in that afternoon. As we drove to the office, I explained to him that I just thought we ought to get it looked at by a professional. I didn’t elaborate why, because I didn’t want my panic to infect both of us, but luckily my easygoing kid accepted my (overly-simplified) explanation.
The dermatologist was a woman, and a mother, probably close to my age. I felt an immediate rapport with her, especially since she was so kind to Cameron. After looking thoroughly over his spot and asking plenty of questions, she decided it would be best to remove it and send it off for biopsy.
For the first time, Cameron was a little bit apprehensive. Thank goodness it was only because of the excision and not because he realized it could have meant something life-changing. Before the procedure, he asked if he could use the restroom — and as soon as the door closed behind him and I was alone with the doctor, my emotional dam broke, and I looked at her through a wavering wall of tears.
“Please,” I begged, “mother to mother. I need to know if this is something to worry about. Because I’m petrified.”
She looked at me with equal parts gravity and compassion. “I’m not gonna lie,” she said. “If I saw this on a 45-year-old, I’d be very, very concerned.”
Though it may not sound like exactly what a fearful mother needed to hear, it was. Because with those honest and straightforward words, she validated that my worries definitely weren’t unfounded. She didn’t sugar-coat the situation, and I was grateful. I knew now that my fear was legitimate and appropriate, and that I wasn’t a wreck due an over-inflated fear just because this was my child. My baby.
“Given Cameron’s age, though,” she continued thoughtfully, “I’m a little more optimistic about it. All we can do is send it off for biopsy and get some definitive answers.”
I was surprised at the size of the chunk she ended up excising, but Cameron took it like a champ. He was stitched up, sent on his way, and continued living his stress-free 11-year-old life. Because to him, that was the end of it; the spot was gone, he was relieved, and that was that.
To me, though, it was the beginning of nearly two weeks of existing completely on edge. Since we live in a small town, the sample had to be sent to a lab in the nearest city — nearly an hour away — to be tested. Therefore, it was a long waiting process. Not such a big deal … unless you’re waiting to learn whether or not your kid has cancer. In that situation, each day drags on; each night is a long stretch of staring into the darkness, each patch of fitful sleep woven together by nightmares.
Did I mention I Googled images of skin cancer to compare? Yeah. Dumb, I know. Never, ever Google things you’re already losing sleep over. Needless to say, I did my mental health zero favors.
As a mom, I sometimes fall so deeply into the monotony of the day-to-day that I fail to see my kids the way they deserve to be seen. But when faced with the fear of the unknown, I looked at Cameron differently. I memorized everything about him, as though he were about to be taken away, as though I’d wake up one morning and he’d be gone. I studied the green flecks in the depths of his steely gray eyes. I admired his quick wit and sense of humor, and his go-with-the-flow nature, and the way he’s always so calm and patient with his brothers.
I vowed that, no matter what we were facing down, I’d never again take the little things I love about my kids for granted.
After an excruciating stretch of days, I finally got the phone call I was waiting for. Cameron’s spot was called an angiokeratoma: basically, just a clump of dilated blood vessels near the surface of the skin that thicken and harden over time. Most importantly, it wasn’t cancerous, and my boy was going to be fine. No further treatment needed.
Months later, he has a small scar on his hip, and I have a big one on my heart — because even though it all turned out fine, I was traumatized by that prolonged period of the terrifying unknown. Is it because I had encountered pediatric cancer before? Because I felt the same jolt of panic this time around? Or would any mother feel the same: worry that, at times, literally made it hard to breathe?
I admit, I haven’t always been the best at reapplying my kids’ sunscreen when they’re playing outside, and they’ve gotten sunburned plenty of times. But since this skin cancer scare, I’ve changed my tune. Though pediatric skin cancer is relatively rare, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia says that the incidence of melanoma in kids is increasing by 2% each year — and getting sunburns as kids can set them up for skin cancer later on in life, at an age when it’s more prevalent.
Considering the emotional ass-kicking I went through during my son’s scare, that’s a risk I’m unwilling to take. For the sake of my kids, absolutely, but also for myself.
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