4 things I learned from getting skin cancer

Five weeks ago, I came out of my first (and hopefully only) brush with cancer. I’ve heard a few people refer to it as ‘the big C’ recently but come on, it’s not the disease that must not be named, let’s call it what it is.

© CancerDojo.org
© CancerDojo.org


I had metastatic melanoma skin cancer, which was possibly the smallest version of cancer I’ve ever heard of, consisting of the original melanoma freckle, and two cancer cells that had moved to a nearby lymph node. Having lost my dad to pancreatic cancer less than two years ago, I’m aware of the horrors that advanced cancer can wreak, and so I count myself pretty lucky within the realm of bad diagnoses. Thank goodness for early detection.

My lite cancer took up four months of my time, included three different operations, six different doctors, a number of pathologists and radiologists I’m not even certain of, and several metric tons of patience from me, my family and my friends.

Here are some of the things it taught me:

Always, always, always go for regular doctor check ups: my melanoma got caught because I insist on going to the dermatologist every year, and catching it early is probably the reason I’ve avoided chemotherapy and radiation and anything worse.

Doctors always say you should be checking your own freckles and moles for any strange signs (like these), but that list makes me think every one of my freckles is strange, so I’d rather leave it to the professionals. We live in a beautiful and ridiculously sunny country and everyone’s at risk, so if you or your medical aid can afford it, go to the doctor!

If you have medical aid, make sure you know what it’s about: I have a hospital plan that had pretty lax cover for chronic conditions (thinking I really only needed it if I got into a car crash or some other emergency). Up until I got it, I didn’t know cancer was actually classified as a chronic condition, and so ran into some problems getting claims approved sometimes.

Also, if in doubt, phone your medical aid and ask someone to explain it to you, because websites and brochures often feel like they do the opposite of help.

Don’t Google anything to do with cancer, ever: I am a masochistic, symptom-Googling addict and Internet conspiracy theories about how much pharmaceutical drugs are poisoning us suck me in all the time. But even if you’re something like that, don’t Google questions about cancer. It’s a horribly impersonal, deeply depressing world of bad news out there if you do.

There’s a really great South African social enterprise called Cancer Dojo (who made the kickass image you see above) who’s working with Google to take the shock factor out of their cancer-related search results and make them more useful to people, but until that’s sorted, stick to searching for what superfoods can stop you getting the flu this winter instead.

Be kinder to yourself than you thought you needed to: Cancer just completely sucks for you and everyone around you, there’s no way out of that, but a reaction I didn’t expect from myself was when I started trying to be a cancer survivor the moment the diagnosis was handed out. I downplayed it, I made a huge effort to show everyone I was coping very well and I pretended it was already sorted.

So by the time by third operation came around (something with the horrific name of a ‘neck dissection’), my resolve had somewhat run out and recovery felt much harder than I think it would have if I’d just been honest about this being an unexpected shock from the beginning. Sure, a positive attitude helps you to keep moving forward, but I don’t believe that means you need to be pleasing everyone else at the same time. Get better and then say thank you – that’s how you can please the people who love you.

But if all that sounds a bit fluffy and crazy to you and you don’t do a Google search every time you sneeze unexpectedly, just trust me on the regular check-ups one.

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