You walked into the room and immediately made your presence known. Your “robustness” took up the entirety of the door frame. Your smile revealed perfectly aligned, bright-shining teeth. You had an American flag pin on your right collar (very comforting to know that my doctor was patriotic). One of the first things you mentioned was your alma mater.
“You are in good hands, Ryan.”
You took me to your office and then had me take off my shirt and pants. I apologized for my hairy legs; you said it was fine (“Thanks,” I had muttered out). You examined my body and immediately saw something suspicious – two weird, off-color, misshapen moles. One on my right arm and one on my back. You continued your search across my body and must’ve saw something I didn’t, because you shook your head with a solemn expression sketched out on your face. You looked concerned.
“These look suspicious. Let’s take some samples. Better safe than sorry.”
You called in your nurses and then proceeded to take biopsies from all over my body. My neck, my back, both arms, both legs. You tore up my skin, stuck your knives and medical instruments into me, and carved your samples out. Instead of stitches, you performed some cauterizations, which means you burned my skin shut (according to my nurse friends, the medical community prefers this technique because it allows the wound to heal faster. The only minus factor is that they’re literally burning you. And you feel every second of it). You ripped off your gloves and told me to take some ibuprofen and to take it easy for the rest of the day.
My whole body ached. Physically *and* mentally. How could a doctor be so cold, so impersonal, so intrusive? Why did you make me feel like I was a test subject?
A few weeks later, your office called my cell phone and told me to come to the office right away. My adrenaline spiked. I remember running two stop signs on the drive over to the office.
You broke the news to me. The spot on my back tested positive for melanoma, Stage IB. The one on my arm contained melanoma cells, but it was only a small amount.
“You’re lucky. We caught it early,” you said.
You were right – I was very lucky. Although melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, it is very treatable. If caught early on (Stage IA or IB, for example), over 94% to 97% of cases can be treated and put into remission (Source: Cancer.Org). Even though it’s very treatable, it can be a killer if left untreated (Bob Marley died from melanoma that was left untreated on his toe). To doctors, the scariest portion of a diagnosis is seeing if a potential melanoma spot is close to your lymph nodes, where it could metastasize (spread to other parts of my body). The one spot on my right arm was right next to a lymph node, which was why you were concerned.
You scheduled me for a surgery two days later.
I don’t remember those two days at all. Other than the feelings of dread and fear.
The day of, you gave me a mild anesthetic. Your nurses entered the room and put their gloves on. I could smell the latex.
And then you tore me up again. Your anesthetic didn’t help. It hurt as you dug into my skin – deep into my skin – and carved and carved and carved. The one on my back hurt the most. You dug deep and it felt like you hit a nerve. I remember crying out in pain, and you didn’t say a word. Not a single thing. Your nurses went about their business like nothing was wrong.
The entire process took 30 minutes. It felt like 30 hours.
You told me to take some ibuprofen once I got home, and then you left the room.
When I sat back in my car, I cried. I was a wreck. I was still distraught by how impersonal it was. Where was your bedside manner?
I also had feelings of guilt. Who am I to cry and complain about this pain, when there are those who have more severe cancers than I do? I had one surgery, others go through chemotherapy and radiation and much more. Who am I to say that I suffered?
The pain was extreme for the first few days. I couldn’t sleep on my back for weeks.
In follow-up appointments, your nurses told me different things. One nurse told me I was fine, another nurse told me another surgery was needed to get the rest of the melanoma out, another nurse wasn’t sure what the next steps would be for me. One nurse said that my test results had arrived, another said it would take a few more weeks. No one knew what was going on.
Your nurses and your office stressed me out. You left me with great uncertainty of what would happen next. What was really wrong with me? Were you going to tear up my body again?
After my next round of tests, you told me that the surgery was a success, but “to be safe” (as you put it, again), I needed to get another surgery. After the pain your procedure caused and the great uncertainty your nurses told me, I didn’t know if I could trust that answer. I knew I had to get a second opinion.
My appointment with the second doctor was completely different. The doctor was kind, the nurses cared. When I was sitting in the examination room, the nurse practitioner looked at my medical records and did a body scan. As she looked at my body, she saw my scars, and said, “Wow, they did quite the number on you, didn’t they?”
I felt numb when she said that. She was right. You did do a number on me.
She told me good news: “The places where he did biopsies were an unnecessary procedure. There was nothing wrong with his decision, but I can tell right now that you were fine before your biopsies. He didn’t have to do anything else.”
She continued: “He’s already removed all the melanoma cells from your back. A second surgery isn’t needed. We’ll wait a month to see what it looks like, but I can tell right now that you’re going to be fine.”
She ended up being right. There was no need for a second surgery, or more biopsies. There was no more melanoma. I was healthy.
It was confirmed that it could come back at anytime, but for now, I was in the clear.
I was relieved, but unsettled.
I understand what you did and why you did it. I know you didn’t do anything wrong. You were being careful. Some doctors are more conservative with their procedures, others more liberal. I understand that, and I respect that.
But you could have done better. You could have had a better bedside manner. You could have not treated me as if I was a test subject. Your nurses could have said things in confidence and not given me misleading information.
You could have been honest with me. You could have treated me as a human being.
I was ashamed of having (what I thought was) a small, insignificant cancer. A cancer easily treatable with a few procedures. A cancer normally associated with grandpas and grandmas who go tan on the beach too much.
You left me with scars – unnecessary scars – all over my body that I will have to look at for the rest of my life. Constant reminders that melanoma can strike again, any time.
But I am at peace with my scars now. They are signs that I caught it early. That I can keep on living.
Your lack of bedside manner will not define me. I can say with confidence that I know I’m not a test subject. I know I’m more than just a biopsy, more than just a medical procedure.
I am a human being.
I’m at peace with my diagnosis. Skin cancer might be easily treatable, but it is still cancer. No matter how small or how treatable it is, your type of cancer is not anything to be ashamed about. What matters is that you take the necessary steps to getting better, to being healthy.
Sure, I still get anxiety about it. This melanoma can come back at anytime. But that’s okay to have those feelings sometimes. What matters is that I’m still here, that I’m living in the moment, that I’m enjoying life to its fullest extent. I’m thankful for every extra minute I have.
You might have tore up my body, but you didn’t tear up my spirit. I’m still here.
Your former patient