I remember the deep, precise cut across my leg, leering at me like a malevolent smile. The plastic surgeon, trying to be jocular, observed, "you're very slim, there's hardly any fat on your legs at all!" I nodded, staring into the widening gash at the tiny fat globules. I attempted a joke: "I prefer to store all my fat on my belly!" Unsurprisingly, because of the combined lameness of the joke and the context – I was on an operating table – no one laughed. The local anaesthetic made my leg numb, as the surgeon zapped veins, scraped bone and sliced into flesh. I wasn't really up to creating a witty rapport. I felt numb, too.
Two weeks before, I learnt that a melanoma was silently turning my own cells against me, and since then, I couldn't wait to get on to that operating table and rip out the mutinous skin. I didn't feel anything for a few days, but when I did, what I mostly felt was relief that finally someone had taken me seriously. If I had listened to my doctor in the first instance, no one would have kindly cut my leg open, and by the time they did, it might have been too late.
When people mention cancer, you think about chemotherapy, hair loss, vomiting, weight gain and weight loss, fatigue, misery and the terrifying prospect that after all that, you still might not survive. I didn't have to go through any of that. The operation was the end of the ordeal for me. Once I was diagnosed it was all comparatively easy, but my battle was to get someone to acknowledge that anything was wrong in the first place.
It began with a mole. It was itchy, then painful, then it formed a scab, and then just fell off. I thought it odd so I told my mum, who ordered me to go straight to the doctor's. Clever mum. She knew what the GP refused to accept, that a mole that turns into something that isn't a mole is a very big warning sign, no matter if you're in a supposedly "low-risk" group. I was 25, supposedly too old for leukemia, too young for skin cancer. I was probably a picture of health and happiness, and that was the problem.
"You look fine," my doctor said, and asked me if I wanted my mole removed for "cosmetic" reasons. I explained I wanted it removed because I had heard that a dodgy mole was something you should have removed. "Well, you look well," the doctor repeated, paying more attention to my face than my leg. I went home, relieved that he seemed totally unperturbed. I was obviously just being paranoid.
"He did what?!" My mum was unimpressed with the GP's blasé dismissal. She sent me back to properly discuss the mole, which by now had mutated into something that resembled the original mole, except that, weirdly, it was totally devoid of pigmentation. "But he says it's fine," I replied, looking dubiously at the pale, moley lump. But, mainly to appease my mother, I went back.
This time the doctor ran through a checklist. I had no history of cancer in my family, I had never been badly sunburnt, I do not have fair skin. I am a very moley person but my moles are perfectly healthy. I was sent home. My mum, bless her, made me return again, and demand a referral.
I got sent to another doctor whose practice was just up the road from my doctor. I had to make the appointment in person, then had to wait two weeks to be seen. Time was ticking on. By this point I was feeling incredibly frustrated, my mole was now a pimple, it bore no resemblance to its former moley self – even I was worried it might be something serious. "It's a pimple," the new doctor said. "It just looks like a normal pimple." I explained that just seven weeks before it had looked just like a normal mole. He repeated the dreaded phrase: "You look fine. Is it for cosmetic reasons you want it removed? Does it bother you because you wear a lot of short skirts?"
Remember being ID'd when you were underage and trying to get into clubs? Remember the embarrassment when you were turned away, because they'd seen your face and you were nervous, overly made-up, and obviously too young? Remember feeling like a bit of a fraud and wishing you were just a bit older, more confident? That's how I felt. People in authority kept telling me I was just a silly little girl who was preoccupied with her looks. I had spent six weeks just trying to get someone to take a tiny patch of skin off my leg and test it, but the door seemed barred. "I can freeze it, if you're bothered about the look of it. If you want to go away and think about that, it will take at least another two weeks before you can make another appointment."
Desperate, I agreed to the cryo treatment. I wasn't sure what it would do, but anything would be better than having to wait any longer. He took the gun, froze off what I now thought of as the "pimplemole" and told me to make another appointment in reception. I crept home and finished up my assignments for the week, tired, but pleased that something had been done.
"You do realise that if it's cancer, freezing it won't do anything?" said my mum the next day. No, I hadn't realised that. By now, I knew the drill, and as soon as I had a gap in my schedule, I went back to my doctor's surgery. I spoke to the practice manager who told me to go away. I didn't. I couldn't. Suddenly I was very angry. I wasn't an idiot, I wasn't paranoid. I certainly wasn't boomeranging back to the doctor's for fun... all I wanted was a tiny slip of paper. Why wouldn't anyone give it to me?
I tried to explain to the practice manager that the doctor had already seen me and sent me away several times, and that I wasn't a hypochondriac. She raised her voice, ordering me to leave. At that moment, my anger vanished and I didn't have any energy left. I don't remember exactly what happened after that point, but I think I cried. I definitely refused to go away. Some time passed. I ended up with a reluctantly given referral letter in my hand.
After that, everything was very simple. I went to a hospital where they tested me straight away. It was hard to tell for certain what was wrong because of the trauma the cells had undergone from being frozen, so the doctors sent a larger sample away to a specialist who confirmed it was a melanoma. Within two weeks after getting the letter, just a few days before my 26th birthday, it was all over.
According to the Teenage Cancer Trust, as many as a quarter of cancer sufferers aged 13 to 24 have to visit their GP four times or more before their symptoms are taken seriously and they are referred to a specialist. I was lucky, but delays such as the ones I experienced can have a serious negative effect on the outcome of the treatment young people receive.Reuse content