Rachel was 30 years old, living in Brooklyn with two young children and a husband who traveled all the time, when she got a call from the dermatologist telling her she had melanoma. That was 2014. Now she has a third child and separated from her husband.
The day when I found out about diagnosis, the first place my head went was that I was going to die. The only association I had with melanoma is that it’s really aggressive and you usually catch it too late—it’s a death sentence.
My heart just stopped. I felt a rush of adrenaline that was just pure terror. I had to walk away from the kids, lock myself in the bedroom and just collapse. I didn’t want them to hear me. I just started crying. I had already assumed the worse-case scenario.
I didn’t spend a lot of time on this, but I had a fleeting thought, you idiot, why didn’t you check sooner? It had been 5 years since my last dermatology visit—I had been busy with my life, motherhood, the kids. I remember thinking, if it turns out badly, I’ll never forgive myself for not paying attention.
Next I felt totally overwhelmed. The doctor had said to find a surgeon and an oncologist, and he had given me one name, but I was in shock and didn’t know what to do first.
I remember that day very vividly. It was like having an out of body experience. I was very present with the kids, really seeing them, really with them, but so distracted, making tons of phone calls. It was very disjointed and unusual such that my older daughter, who was not yet four, sensed these were important phone calls, and she devised a game to keep my younger daughter distracted. Just seeing that, I was heartbroken at the sense of potential loss.
I felt very clear that day about who I needed around me. I had always taken pride in being independent, and it wasn’t terribly upsetting that my husband happened to be away that day. I knew I needed to reach out first to my sister. I only wanted people around me who would understand the enormity of it and not say the wrong thing.
When I called her to tell her, I said “remember that spot I had biopsied….” Before I had even finished she said, “Oh fuck.” She got it right away. I was crying so hard, but she didn’t say “it’s going to be ok” which most people do, as much to comfort themselves as to comfort you. Instead, she was totally with me in that place of fear and sadness, while being so ready to jump into action. She emailed me a list of questions to ask the doctor and started researching options because she knew I couldn’t think it through.
My husband’s flight got cancelled and he didn’t make it home that night as planned. I asked a friend to come over and be with me, but in retrospect, I think it was really hard for her. Everyone handles crisis in different ways, and she was very uncomfortable with my fear. She wanted to cheer me up, talk about light things, but I needed to just be in the moment.
I took my older daughter to bed with me, something I hadn’t done since she was a small baby. But I needed that love and the warmth of her and to feel her vitality.
The next day, my daughter had ballet class with one of her best friends, whose dad was a good friend of mine. He saw me when I dropped her off at class and knew something was wrong. He gave me the biggest hug, and walked and talked with me through the whole class, which was such a comfort.
By the time class was over, my husband had made it home. I was relieved to see him, but it was also a hard confirmation of something I had known about for a while. We had been struggling for some time and my diagnosis brought great clarity to the situation. He wasn’t able to be there for me.
Clarity and Urgency
It was hard on him, too, but he said things like, “Don’t worry until we know we need to. It’s going to be fine. Don’t be scared. Eat, take care of yourself.” All totally understandable, but not what I needed to hear from him. I felt disconnected and had to be self-protective. He desperately wanted to be the person for me. I never said “you are not what I need right now” but that’s what I felt. I reached out to family and friends instead, held myself a little apart. It’s more painful to seek and not find than not to seek at all.
I waited three days to tell my mom, which was really hard. We talk almost every day, but I just avoided her, so she wouldn’t hear it in my voice. She was having company for the weekend and I knew it would be hard for her to deal with. When I did tell her, she was eerily calm and said, “My intuition is that this will be fine.”
It was hard. You have to make so many important decisions just when you’re too overwhelmed by fear and an overflow of information. You take your best guess and hope you got it right.
When you go through something like that, you get this incredible sense of clarity. All the usual clutter and distraction fell away. What was left was a kind of pure certainty of what was important and the importance of living to do those things. I felt an urgency to say to say, “I love you” and “thank you” to the people that mattered. Everything deepened, the way I felt with my kids, my family, my friends. It’s faded a bit, but that clarity and urgency is still there.