[WARNING: MORE GRAPHIC IMAGES AT VERY BOTTOM OF POST]
I begged the nurse to numb the area well. Although my red hair has faded away, I still have the weird mutant gene that makes it difficult to numb me with local anesthesia.
I could tell she stopped sticking the needle in and I grew nervous. This was my second surgery to remove melanoma from the back of my leg, so I knew the drill. The first surgery was in November, 2010.
My dermatologist had noticed it the previous year but chose not to biopsy it. In Sept, 2010, I asked her to biopsy it and she did.
When she phoned me with the results - the same week I got a hard copy of my cookbook - I had my *first* "you have cancer" call.
The first surgery was much more difficult than I anticipated. My mom and aunt, who both had melanoma before - my redheaded aunt's melanoma was so deep it went down to the bone - warned me that the recovery would be harder than the doctors said.
When I had asked the Seattle-based doctor if I'd be able to walk soon after the surgery, they said "yes." However, I didn't realize that THEY didn't realize what life is like in Manhattan. MY LEGS are my transportation. I lived in a 3 floor walk-up! I taught cooking for a living!
I was stupid and cocky so I booked a flight back to New York only a week or so after I had the surgery in Seattle. A work addict has to get back to work, right?
I had scheduled a bunch of book signings and classes that I didn't feel I could cancel. I schlepped down to Washington DC for a book signing that nobody showed up for.
It was 2010. People were not going to book signings anymore.
It didn't take long for my wound to pop open.
I canceled as many gigs as I could without impacting my income too badly.
Then I got the report.
They didn't get clean margins. I'd need another surgery.
I begged them to wait until January. I need a few weeks to wrap everything up with my work and fly back to Seattle. By now, we know the cancer had been growing since at least September, probably longer.
This is not good.
After miserably dragging my leg down the street for several weeks, I broke down and bought a blue cane from Duane Reade.
Teaching on my feet was hell. Then I'd get home and have to take three flights of narrow stairs to my apartment. (This is when I'd have the conversation with myself "Really Julie? You couldn't just get a cushy fucking job and marry a sweet dude and live in a nice fancy house, could you? NO YOU HAD TO BE A FUCKING HIPPIE WHO DOES EVERYTHING THE HARD WAY!!?!?!? REALLLY????"
I'd had a lot of health issues on my insides. But I'd never experienced such a debilitating physical disability before. In my twenties, I managed to go on long hikes and bike rides while I was having severe ulcerative colitis flare-ups.
It was a very, very dark period in my life. I had no marketing plan for my book. No budget for it. No energy for it. No idea how I was going to recoup what I'd dumped into the book, especially while crippled.
I didn't know how to reach out to people and tell them I was in emotional pain.
I didn't know how to share how foolish I felt about my business and life decisions.
I didn't know how to ask for help.
I finished up my obligations and headed back to Seattle to be cut open again.
The second surgery was scheduled for early January which was a slow time for my work anyway.
I couldn't imagine the pain I'd have to endure a second time, cutting into that already sensitive tissue.
It ends up that I was right. The nurse that was numbing me for the second surgery didn't give me enough. As I was limping out of the procedure room, I saw the a chunk of my leg sitting in a little glass container that the rookie nurse left out. It was the shape of a diamond and was at least an inch long.
I leaned on the counter next to this piece of my body that no longer belonged to me and realized I was already feeling pain.
"Um, shouldn't I not be feeling anything in my leg until later tonight?" I said woozily to the front desk people. Their eyes got wide and I saw them flurry around. "Here's another vicodin" they handed me a pill and some water.
I took it and hobbled over to the elevator. My mom was getting the car.
Our family has our cancer surgery routines down.
I got in the car and said "something is wrong, I'm already feeling pain." She said "that's not right." "I KNOOOOOOOOWWWWW AHHHHHHHHHHHH" as we hit a bump in the road, pain shot through my body. "THEY. DIDN'T. NUMB. ME. ENOOOOOOGGGHHHH."
By the time I got home, I was in excruciating pain. Usually, the pain meds have plenty of time to kick in by the time the local anesthesia wears off hours later.
The numbing went away mere minutes after my surgery.
I ended up downing half the bottle of vicodin - which I hate to this day and refuse to take - and puking it back up.
It's a vast understatement to say "it was a miserable night" but I'll say it anyway.
When I got the third call "um, Julie, we are so so sorry, but we didn't get clear margins. Again."
I was laying down in bed. Actually I'm in the exact spot I was in when I got that call! I'm typing on a couch this time. I moved around the furniture last year.
"We will do what we should have done at the beginning. We'll schedule four surgeries four days in a row. We'll take the tissue out, NOT give you stitches, send it to 24 hour pathology, and if we don't get clean margins, we'll cut more the next day, and the next until we get it all out."
So what you are saying, I'm thinking to myself, is that instead of making this a ONE WEEK ordeal, it became a THREE MONTH ordeal?
I hung up the phone and called out "WHAT? WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO!?!?!?!?" because I knew at this point in my life if I don't learn the lesson or take the new path, the illness will keep returning.
I already knew what the answer was: get out of New York. So many signs were pointing that direction. I wasn't living my best healthy life there and hadn't for a long time.
The city enabled my work addiction. I needed change.
They cut into me for a third time - I think it was a 7-inch scar when it was brand new - I get my scars mixed up now.
I got the final call. Margins were clean. I could come back the next day and get stitched up.
In some ways, it still sounds so hard what I went through - even compared to what I've been through now. Probably because it rendered me so immobile, also because it was my first cancer experience.
But I know the real reason why that experience was so awful.
I didn't tell anyone. Not even good friends. I thought cutting out melanoma would be like a biopsy. They'd cut a tiny piece of skin and I'd go on merry way.
No. That's not how it works. And that's not how it feels.
I will never, ever keep my health issues a secret again. Everyone is different. But for me, sharing my stories has been life-saving.
I know this post isn't fun like my exciting career stories.
But this had a huge impact on my life. And I'd also like people to be more aware about cancer screenings.
My melanoma was PINK which most people would blow off. I certainly did. Until I didn't.
If I hadn't asked my doctor to biopsy it that September in 2010....
It was the first time I saved my own life from cancer.
But it would not be the last.
PLEASE. GET. YOUR. CANCER. SCREENINGS.
IF YOU WANT TO SEE GROSS PHOTOS OF MY LEG, scroll below. I decided to include them because I think we don't share the hard stuff enough. I personally don't like looking at medical photos but I know others find it interesting.
IMPORTANT: I'll share more about my mental health experiences during this time in another set of posts. I have so many things to share, I'm finding this designated 30 day project is an excellent way for me to organize and share all my information.
WARNING!!!!!!! GRAPHIC MEDICAL PHOTOS BELOW!!!!
PHOTO #28. This post is part of a series celebrating my life before I lost four organs to three cancers in 2014. It is an “online memorial” honoring the person I was, in the hopes that I can make peace with the disabled person I’ve become. Every day for 30 days until my birthday, I will challenge myself to write a post inspired by the photo I’m sharing. I will not plan the topic or write ahead of time. I will merely look at the photo and write whatever it inspires. Thanks for reading! #julesfor30 #happyrebirth