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Some lessons on fear, fortune and gratitude: a cancer scare in Ecuador

Viewpoint at Sol y Luna

“You’ll get your results in eight days.”

That was Friday. Since then, I’ve been doing all I can to forget about the small hole in my thigh that mustn’t get wet.

I watched an episode of New Girl. The scene went like this.

Nick: I might have met future me. If I find out how you die, do you want me to tell you?

Schmidt: No, I already know it’s one of these moles. See this SOB here, I’ve been eyeing him for a while. This one’s going to go green one day and there you go, Schmidt’s dead.

I laughed nervously, knowing Schmidt’s feeling. At 19, after a sun-filled gap year, I booked an appointment at the doctor’s simply to ask if I might have skin cancer.  “Do you have any symptoms?” he asked. “Not that I know of – just red hair, fair skin and a shed load of moles.” He had a look and reassured me there was nothing sinister-looking, but advised me about what to look out for.

Since then, I’ve tried to keep a vigilant eye on my galaxy of multi-coloured moles, checking for changes in size, shape and shade. New moles have shown up, others have grown, but there’s never been cause for concern.

An unwelcome appearance

Then last week, as I turned to inspect some mosquito bites on the back of my leg, a little mark caught my eye. A black, raised spot had appeared on a small mole on the side of my thigh. It looked unusual, dark, asymmetrical – not like anything I’d experienced before. A quick Google did little to reassure me, producing photos of melanomas looking the same.

Steve’s dad is a dermatologist, so instead of diving into head-long panic, we took photos and sent them to him for inspection. “It’s so small,” I hoped, “We’re probably just being dramatic”. But no, he recommended having it removed – just in case. The ‘just in case’ referred to skin cancer. I was going to have to have a mole removed and tested in case I had skin cancer. This was actually happening – and I was in Ecuador.

The latter turned out not to be a problem. Thanks to the excellent concierge, Daniel, at our hotel, we found a modern hospital in Cuenca that would be willing to remove it the next day – providing we could get there by 9am. That day was a holiday in Ecuador and the dermatology clinic wouldn’t open again until the following Monday. The wound would take at least a week to heal and I was due to do a month-long yoga course two-weeks later. If all went well, I couldn’t afford to be injured for that. Plus, I couldn’t wait to be rid of the mole.

Falling into ‘what ifs’

So we set off at 4:30am the next morning. Bad news ensued when we reached the clinic. The doctor spoke no English and it was the hospital translator’s day off. We’d have to get by with what we knew.

Holding the mole

Me holding the offending mole

My mind was running wild with doubts and concerns. Would he and we understand each other? Was skin cancer different in Ecuador with the absence of such fair skins? What if he wouldn’t remove it? How would we get the results? I had a whole blanket of ‘what ifs’ to cover the biggest one of all – what if I had cancer?

Once inside, our Spanish surprised us. We explained, he understood and agreed to remove the mole. The local anaesthetic was injected (ow), a scalpel was produced, stitches were spun, and within minutes the mole was in a tiny little jar with a yellow lid. I was rid of the worrying mark and it was ready for inspection by the pathologist.

The eight days of doubt

And so began the eight days of doubt. The appointment had gone well, the doctor didn’t seem concerned and, while there, I’d been near convinced it was nothing to worry about. He’d even used the word ‘absurd’ to describe the chances of the mole being cancerous. But he’d also said it was impossible a mark like that could ever even become something malevolent. Steve’s dad, the NHS, and Cancer Research said otherwise. My fears weren’t set to sleep.

Instead they roared and raged. I tried not to think about it, but the bandage on my leg would scream for attention, spilling yet more and more ‘what ifs?’. I rued every moment I’d spent in the sun, the burns I’d suffered in pursuit of a tan; and the sunbeds I’m ashamed to say I used as a teen trying to clear bad skin.

Steve found out he had an important interview with one of his heroes in India in a couple of week’s time. If my results were bad, he wouldn’t go. The thought catalysed me into a spinning tantrum of ‘you’re better of without me’ fear and panic, peppered with ‘life is horrible’ and ‘I hate this’ despair. He never wavered, holding me as I sobbed, and making magic with the simple words: “But I love you. Nothing can change that. I want to be here for you. Our life and our love is wonderful.”

The importance of gratitude

I stopped, I breathed, I took stock, and slowly my tides changed. If the results were bad, Steve wouldn’t go to India, I wouldn’t do my yoga course, we’d likely go home, I’d have cancer, I may even die – but we’d deal with it. Fortune began to out-weigh the fear.

I’m in a loving relationship that makes my heart sing every day, I’m living the life I want to, I have wonderful friends and family – life is good, and instead of worrying about what might take that away, I need to be thankful that it’s happening. My Mum and Dad both died young, at 52 and 44, and despite my Mum’s long and painful struggle with MS, she never stopped being grateful for what she had in life – her love with Dad, me, her early career as a midwife, her friends and family.

So today, as we approached the hospital, fear wasn’t my only companion. It was still there, quietly whispering its ‘what ifs’ and worries,  but I remembered my Mum, I looked to Steve, and my fortune overwhelmed it.

A final hurdle

Unfortunately, once there, administrative minefields greeted us. “We don’t have anything under your name” was the first hurdle, followed by a slightly more encouraging, but nonetheless disappointing: “It’s possible they’ll be ready in a few days”. We’d be en-route to Mexico by then. It’d be too late for Steve to get to India.

There was seemingly nothing we could do – until my doctor’s nurse suddenly said “vamos” and led us down two flights of stairs to the reception for pathology. She chatted with the secretary who handed her an envelope that she promptly began to open. “Los resultados” she announced. Not a few days later, but now – my results were in her hands.

The fear swelled, Steve held me, and I tried to ground myself in gratitude – feeling sick with uncertainty at the same time.

“Es bueno – no es maligno,” smiled Yolanda. And with those words, it was over. I don’t  have cancer, the mole was simply pigmented in an unusual way. I looked at Steve and felt light-headed with relief. We’d have dealt with it whatever happened, but are deeply grateful not to have to.

The last week has been an up-and down ride in fear, fortune and gratitude. I was forced to think about my life and what death would mean, pushing me into a joyous awareness of the present – my fortune in love, friendship and opportunity. It may sound cliched or schmaltzy, but this scare has reminded me of the simple value of living life well – being true to yourself, kind to others, and ever thankful for what one has. After all, life is a ride we’re lucky to be on.

And please, don’t ever forget your sunscreen.

Steve and Victoria hugging when we found out the news

We’re off to celebrate!

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Comments

  1. says

    What a wonderful, brave post – thank you so much for sharing this difficult experience Victoria. I’m so glad you are ok, and can totally empathise. A month or so before we left for India I had a routine smear test that showed some changes, leading me to having a procedure at the hospital to remove cells for testing. The results would take six weeks, and I had a 70% chance of needing treatment for early stage cervical cancer. We spent days deliberating whether we should delay our flights and wait for the results to come back, but in the end we just went for it, deciding to go and enjoy the start of our adventures as best we can whilst we waited. Just a few days ago my mum opened my results for me back home, and I am ok! I have to have a check-up in a year, but I am cancer free. I am high-risk for developing cervical cancer at a later date, so will have to have regular tests, but I am ok with that. And like you, I am grateful. I hadn’t planned on writing about all this, but you have proved that sharing your story warts (or moles!) and all is always the best way. Thank you, and much love to you xxx
    Hannah recently posted..The beginning of the beginningMy Profile

    • Victoria says

      Hannah, thank you so much for sharing your story and I’m so pleased you’re okay.
      I struggled with whether or not to publish my story, but in the end decided that it would stay true the blog’s honesty and maybe help people who are ever in a similar situation. I’m sure for some people it may be seen as sharing too much or even attention-seeking, but I always appreciate people sharing their tricky times and I feel comfortable sharing mine too. Take care Hannah. I’m delighted your journey has got off to a great start and I hope our paths cross soon x

  2. says

    I can’t imagine how scared you were when you realised that you’d travelled all that way and you’d have to get over the language barrier! So pleased that everything is ok and that you’re fit and healthy! I’m like you, constantly checking my weird looking moles (a doctor once called a mole of mine ‘pretty like a flower’ haha).
    I think it’s worse when you get sick on the road (and not just with a cold) because you suddenly realise how vulnerable you can become so well done coping…I’m sure I’d be curled in a corner somewhere panicking haha :D
    Toni recently posted..What happens when you get bloggers blockMy Profile

    • Victoria says

      That was indeed a bad moment! It was so lucky that our Spanish is better than we thought.
      Thanks for your kind words. I think that when these things happen, a kind of survival instinct sets in. People always used to ask my Mum how she coped with her illness, and she’d shrug and say “You just have to get on with it.” I think that’s true. You don’t really have an option, so you have to take it as it comes and try your hardest to stay present rather than falling into a panic of ‘what ifs’. Much easier said than done though! I had some real tantrums over the past week!

  3. says

    Wow! You are a brave lady. I have a lot of moles too and it’s a constant worry (my mom had a malignant one removed a few years ago). Scary stuff. So glad you are okay!

    • Victoria says

      Thank you Steph. As Schmidt said, moles really are SOBs. It’s so tricky trying to keep track of them all. I’m pleased your Mum was okay, and thanks for the kind words x

    • Victoria says

      Ha! I wouldn’t say I had a level head the whole time. I did have moments of clarity, and I felt okay by the end, but poor Steve had to deal with some pretty big tantrums on my part!

  4. says

    Victoria, you have always amazed me with your bravery but that awe I already had has been well and truly, heart-stoppingly surpassed by that post. What a thing to go through – I thought my dog bite and injections against the mini tiny chance I might have rabies was enough.

    I’m so glad you’re safe and happy and in such good hands there with Steve and the world-wide network you’ve created around you.

    Sending you lots of love!!

  5. says

    I was on a Mexican Cruise this summer when a pimple like lesion appeared at the tip of my nose. The pimple never went away. I have NO risk factors! I’ve got a darker complexion, and I don’t even like laying out on a beach.

    The “pimple” ended up being cancer. Just found out today I am now cancer free! Not only do people have to wear sunscreen, but they need to inspect their skin regularly!
    CeCe recently posted..Have An Unforgettable 30th BirthdayMy Profile

    • Victoria says

      Wow CeCe. I am so pleased you got the all clear. I just read your blog post ‘Be a cancer survivor’. I don’t think the cancer ever had any chance of getting worse – you sound like a real fighter with oodles of positivity. It’s an inspiration to read you. Thanks for commenting as now I’ve found your blog, which is brilliant – I love the design and concept. It sounds like you’ve had a lot of really brilliant people in your life, and done some incredible things. I really admire your selflessness. Take care and make sure to celebrate tonight!

    • Victoria says

      Thanks Suzy. I think everyone should have sunscreen as a best friend! The sun is incredibly powerful, even for those with darker skin.

  6. says

    Beautiful post, beautifully written. Sometimes those scares can be a blessing- forcing us to look at our life and thank our lucky stars for everything we have. So glad that you are okay.

    • Victoria says

      Thanks Kim. I agree that these experiences can be blessings. It certainly helped me to re-evaluate things and strengthen my gratitude.

    • Victoria says

      Thanks Ali! It was indeed a scary time, but I think it was also an important learning experience. I’ll certainly be more careful in the sun from now on!

    • Victoria says

      Thanks Leigh! Im so pleased Im getting to do the yoga course too. Its going really well, and Steve’s close to getting the interview in India. All bery exciting! We miss you too x

  7. Ros says

    Only just read this Victoria, but it reminds me what a scary time it must have been for you. As you say, keep using the sunscreen!

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