My Melanoma Story

Genetics. Tanning beds throughout my 20’s. Severe sunburns from when I lived in Uganda. It all likely played a part in why I had a chunk of my face removed two months ago. But whatever the official reason was doesn’t matter. All that mattered was that I had melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, on my face.

IMG-0670It was September of 2015 when I visited the dermatologist about a spot on my right cheek. It was a small, dry, red patch. It was growing, and no amount of lotion or coconut oil was making it go away. The dermatologist recognized it as precancerous immediately, and ended up blasting the spot with liquid nitrogen. It turned white on the edges, but within a few weeks, the spot disappeared.

A little more than a year later, a mole started to grow in that same spot. At first, small and brown. Then it began to grow. One area was black. The edges were jagged. It was a strange-looking spot. I decided to have it checked out.

I was hoping the dermatologist would say, “No, that’s nothing.” But instead what I got was a concerned, “Yes, we need to biopsy that today.”

First they numbed the area with a series of shots. (Shots to the face are REAL fun.) Then she razored out a small chunk of the spot on my face. At this point my face was bleeding and wouldn’t stop, so she had to cauterize the area. Nothing like seeing smoke rise from your face while smelling burning flesh.

I was told they would call me in a week with results.

A week went by and I hadn’t heard anything.

“I’m sure it’s fine!” so many people said.

“It’s nothing, that’s why they haven’t called!” others said.

But my curiosity got the best of me and I called the dermatologist on a Friday morning. My results had just come in.

“Your biopsy shows melanoma. It’s very small, but bigger than what we call “superficial.” So it’s not a best-case scenario, but certainly not the worst. You’ll need to have surgery to remove the melanoma, and since it’s on your face, we’ll refer you to a plastic surgeon.”

For some reason, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t really feel any emotion.

“Melanoma cancer is serious, so we’ll want to get you in as soon as possible,” she said. “Are you OK? Do you have any questions?”

“Um, no questions,” I replied.

We set up a consultation with a plastic surgeon, and hung up.

And then I cried. Unfortunately, I’d already prepared for bad news and read up on melanoma. I knew it was the worst type of skin cancer to have. I knew it could kill you. Although small, the deadliest type of skin cancer was on my face- not far from my brain or my lymph nodes, where melanoma spreads to before it kills you.

It was small. The surgeon would remove it. I wouldn’t have to do chemotherapy or any other sort of radiation, as long as he removed it all. But still. I was told that I had cancer. Words no one wants to hear.

IMG-0410It was about a week later when I met with the plastic surgeon. He explained the stages of melanoma and where mine fell.  The stages run from Stage 0 (superficial) to Stage IV. Mine was a Stage 1 melanoma.

He drew on my face to show how big of an area he would remove. Typically, he said, there would be another appointment before surgery, but since this was melanoma, there was no time to waste. It had to be done sooner than later.

It’s funny how people react to skin cancer. I heard a lot of, “Oh I had a spot removed once,” and, “I had basal cell carcinoma skin cancer before.” Which, yes, sucks, because all cancer sucks. But this was melanoma, and people don’t understand how deadly it can be once it spreads. Not to mention the fact that this was on my face.

IMG-0733But I kept a positive attitude. How could I not? It was somewhat of a simple “fix,” assuming the surgeon removed all the melanoma during surgery. And yes, I’d have a hideous wound on my face for awhile, but that’s nothing compared to burn victims, people who have had acid thrown on their faces, etc., etc. I tried to keep things in perspective, and certainly leaned on my faith in the Lord as I awaited surgery.

My surgery- wide excision- was on August 9. I was sedated, but was “awake” for the surgery. I was tied down to the table, so as not to jolt and mess up the surgeon cutting my face open. It was quite an interesting experience.

Recovery wasn’t bad at all, which surprised me. Once the numbness wore off that night, it was pretty painful, but the next morning and on was fine. It looked, however, pretty disgusting when I was allowed to take off the bandage.

IMG-0319Within four days, they removed the stitches, and it began to heal. And within a week, we received the results of the biopsy of what they removed- my margins were clear, and all of the melanoma was successfully removed.

Praise. God.

But my journey isn’t over yet.

Just last week I met with an oncologist. My surgeon said it would be a good idea, in case I get melanoma again, in case it has spread, I would already be established with one.

IMG-0932Because that’s the issue with melanoma- if it appears on your body once, it’s very possible that it will appear again. Whether due to genetics, tanning beds, or natural sun, I have the cells in my body to produce melanoma. The oncologist will check my lymph nodes again in three months, I have to get full body checks for suspicious spots every six months for the next 3-5 years, and then, if no other melanomas appear, I still have to be checked every year for the rest of my life.

I’ve been told it will take a good year to tell how well the scar has healed. There are a lot of nerves in the face, so it will also take awhile to know whether or not I’ll regain feeling in that area. Right now, if I touch the top part of the scar, it feels like I’m touching the bottom of it. Nerves are a funny thing!

IMG-1868I hope my melanoma story ends here. I plan to be smarter in the sun- wearing SPF 30 every day, whether I’m at the beach or not. And I’ve been encouraging all my friends and family to get checked, and many of them have! All have been fine, with the exception of a friend’s husband who has a superficial melanoma spot on his arm that has to be removed.

But thank the Lord that people are getting checked. If I went through this just to make others more aware of taking care of their skin and going to the dermatologist, it was worth it.

I’m very lucky. Melanoma kills, and it’s one of the fastest growing cancers for people in their 20’s and 30’s.

I get it. Everyone looks better with a tan. fbprofile

I get it. It won’t happen to you, right? That’s certainly what I thought. Nothing could stop me from tanning. Not even the threat of deadly skin cancer.

But my lesson has been learned. I pray no one else I know has to learn this lesson.

Some people commented on my bravery as I went through the entire thing. I can only attribute my positive attitude and outlook to my faith in God. I knew, and I still know, that He has a plan for my life. And even if that plan includes melanoma, I’m happy to live it, because there’s nowhere I’d rather be than in God’s will for my life.

Note: The melanoma was found in my right cheek. In photos, it appears to change because some of the photos are selfies and were taken with a phone that reverses the photo.

 

 

Advertisements

A checklist of love

heart-283146_1920I’m going to make this simple.

Who you should love (in no particular order, with the exception of the first one):

  • God
  • your family
  • your friends
  • your neighbors
  • co-workers (even the annoying ones)
  • Donald Trump
  • Barack Obama
  • NFL players who kneel
  • NFL players who stand
  • Tom Brady (ugh)
  • black people
  • white people
  • Hispanic people (etc. etc. You get the idea)
  • Jesse Jackson
  • Stacey Dash
  • Kathy Griffin
  • Rush Limbaugh
  • Christians
  • Muslims
  • Atheists
  • Agnostics (etc. etc.)
  • people who cut in line
  • Gay people
  • Straight people
  • Transgender people
  • the CBS Exec with no sympathy for the victims in Las Vegas
  • your ex wife/husband
  • gang members
  • homeless people
  • CEO’s who make millions
  • racists
  • felons
  • Republicans
  • Democrats
  • Conservatives
  • Liberals
  • People who don’t love you back
  • Anyone with a pulse

gaudi-2574889_1920Why you should love everyone on the above list (please read the first one multiple times, I didn’t make it up, it was JESUS who said that):

  • “But LOVE YOUR ENEMIES, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” Luke 6:35
  • “We love because He first loved us.” 1 John 4:19
  • “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:31
  • “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13:10
  • “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Ephesians 4:2
  • “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8
  • “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” 1 John 4:7
  • “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:8

In the words of Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.” (Well, for today anyways…)

This love thing goes both ways

heart-700141_640She’s at it again. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll refer to her as “Alice.”

Alice is a nightmare, especially for someone in charge of the image of the organization she targets.

Alice, one of the loudest naysayers of the nonprofit I work for, got on her pedestal last week to alert her friends and family that she doesn’t support the work we do. Instead of seeing us as a solution to helping the homeless, she sees us as a problem.

You see, although the organization I work for has worked with the homeless for more than 100 years in our community, she’s read some articles about homelessness. She knows best. Not only that, but she loves old buildings. It appears she loves them more than people.

I shouldn’t care as much as I do, but I do. It makes my blood boil. The way she inaccurately portrays my employer, the way she talks about homeless people as if they were animals, the way she has not an ounce of compassion for the homeless and talks about how they “infest” downtown as if they were rodents… it kills me.

Where is her grace? Where is her compassion? Where is her heart? Does she not know that Christ was VERY clear about loving people, ESPECIALLY the poor?

And then it hit me.

If Christ truly calls us to love everyone, that means I have to love HER. I have to show HER grace. I have to have compassion for HER.

Love and grace are great when people give it to us. But it sure is a pain when we have to dish it out for someone else, someone we feel doesn’t deserve it.

From what I’ve been told, Alice is a Christian. “Yeah right,” is my first thought. How can that be? She claims to love Jesus, but yet she’s running around talking trash about a Christian organization that helps the homeless?

After I had that thought, I almost literally felt the Holy Spirit tap me on the shoulder and ask me about a few un-Christian-like things in my life. And yet I claim to be a Christian.

The thing is, Alice doesn’t deserve love and grace from me. But I also don’t deserve love and grace from Christ, and yet He gives it to me every single day. Every. Single. Day.

If I’m going to go around preaching that we’re to love our neighbors, ALL our neighbors, and if I openly accept God’s love and grace for me even though sometimes I’m a terrible Christ follower, I have to love Alice. I have to have compassion for her.

Ugh. That’s just how it is. We’re supposed to be a representation of Christ. Christ loves Alice. I can’t say that this will happen overnight. I’m still human, I still have human emotions that take over when Alice, and a select few others, say terrible things about the people in this community facing a homeless crisis.

But I’m going to try to show Alice some compassion.

This love thing goes both ways. It means loving the people we don’t want to love. It means Alice should love the homeless. It means I should love Alice.

“Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:13

 

 

 

Your billboard when you’re knocked out

Everything was going great. I had job satisfaction. I was healthy. I was loving life in my new home. Spiritually, personally, professionally, and emotionally, all was well.

And then my refrigerator died.

Then my boss, whom I respect and adore, announced he was leaving. The team I have been a part of for a year and half was about to be destroyed and picked apart.

Then my dermatologist called with the results of my biopsy. “It’s melanoma.”

blog
Melanoma was found in the dark spot on my cheek.

Then my neighbor reminded me that I was responsible for pulling the weeds in my landscaping. Gee, thanks. I have cancer, and you’re giving me crap about a few weeds.

All of a sudden I was knocked out. I needed money for a fridge. I needed time to pull weeds. I needed a peace about the future of my job satisfaction. I also needed to meet with a surgeon to discuss the surgery that would remove the melanoma on my face.

I know it could be worse. But I didn’t see any of it coming, and I felt totally knocked out.

I have cancer. It can be removed with a simple procedure, but I’m on high alert for the rest of my life when it comes to being vigilant about the spots on my body. Once you have melanoma, there’s a very high chance you’ll get it again. I face so much uncertainty when I look at the future, concerning my health. And how I deal with all of this, as a Christian, is on display for others to see.

Last week in Growth Group at my church, we talked about how we are a “Billboard for the Lord.” For some people, the only Bible they’ll read is how we, as Christians, live our lives.

I am knocked out. I am stressed. I am hurting. I am fearful. And how I handle this speaks volumes to what I really believe about Jesus.

“People who do not believe are living all around you. Live such good lives that they will see the good things you do and will give glory to God.” 1 Peter 2:12

When I’m knocked out like this, there really is only one solution that brings the peace I so desire – Jesus. If I truly believe in His love, mercy, and grace, I will turn to Him, and He’ll give me what I need. He always has.

I will turn to the Lord when I am feeling knocked out. He is the only one who can revive me.

When I am struggling financially because of unforeseen expenses, I will turn to Him.

When I am annoyed by others, I will turn to Him.

When the future is unclear at work, I will turn to Him.

When I get a bad call from the doctor, I will turn to Him.

What will be on your billboard when you’re knocked out? Will it be complaining? Angry words? Hate? Disbelief? Worry? God’s got you covered. If you believe that, live like it.

For me, it’s a struggle to always be a squeaky-clean billboard for the Lord. But I’m certainly going to try to represent Him well, especially when I’m feeling totally knocked out.

13 Reasons Why? Actually there’s only one.

girl-1098610_1920I was living in Uganda when I truly thought about ending my life.

I was in a weird place- both physically and mentally. I was surrounded by Christian people, but never felt so far away from God. Never felt so judged.

I was thousands and thousands of miles away from any family. I had gone to Uganda to follow God’s call for my life, and yet some people didn’t want me there. They made that very clear.

I was spitting up blood often, and none of the doctors in Uganda could figure out why.

I was in a car accident which turned out to be one of the most horrifying moments of my entire life, as our car was surrounded by a giant mob of angry Ugandans banging on the windows, and as one kind stranger told us, “You need to get out of here- they will set your car on fire!”

While it was a tough time, any sane person would realize that those are certainly not reasons to end your life. But that’s the thing about suicidal thoughts- they don’t come from sane people. I was nowhere near sane at certain points of my time in Uganda.

I recently finished the Netflix original, “13 Reasons Why” (based on the book of the same title). It’s about a teenage girl who has committed suicide, but instead of leaving a note, she leaves cassette tapes, each one chronicling the “13 reasons why” she decided to take her own life. It’s intense, it’s heart-wrenching. There are a few scenes in the final episode that are so incredibly graphic, I couldn’t watch.

I watched “Beyond the Reasons” after I finished the 13-episode series. They made it graphic on purpose- suicide is not glamorous. It’s not peaceful. And it most certainly destroys your family and friends who are left behind.

Someone today asked me how I felt about Hannah Baker, the character who takes her own life. And to be honest, I’m still figuring that out. She had horrific things happen to her. I can see why she snapped. I can see why her life sucked. I can understand each and every one of her “13 reasons why” and why she had such bitterness towards each of the 13 people.

But really, there’s only one reason why Hannah Baker killed herself. There’s only one reason a person would kill himself or herself. One reason.

They choose to.

I say that with empathy. I say that as someone who has considered doing it. I know people do it because they think they have no other option. They think no one cares. They aren’t thinking clearly. I wasn’t thinking clearly. But the only reason someone follows through with suicide is because they choose to.

I chose not to. As dark of a place as I was in, I chose not to. I chose to deal. I chose to move forward. I chose to change my situation. I chose to cling to what God says about me, not what other people say about me. I chose life.

It’s never so bad that you can’t choose life. Never.

woman-1006100_640I work for a homeless ministry where each and every day I talk with people who have been through the worst trauma you can imagine. They’ve been physically, sexually, mentally, and verbally abused by the very people who are supposed to love and protect them. But they persevered. Despite their trauma, they choose to live.

There is always a choice when it comes to suicide. And that choice is left completely up to the person considering it.

So how do I feel about Hannah Baker? Although just a fictional character, I feel terrible for her, my heart breaks for her, but I’m also pretty angry with her. She made the wrong choice. Taking your own life is ALWAYS the WRONG choice. Her “13 reasons why” weren’t good enough reasons for me, and that’s because there was only one true reason she took her life- she chose to.

To my new church “home”…

architecture-1868940_1920Dear my new church “home,”

I wanted to write you and be up front with you about a few things. It’s kind of like on The Bachelor when a woman tells the man, “I think there are some things you need to know about me before we get more involved.” And then he ends up sending her away. Not immediately, he would look like a jerk, but eventually, he sends her packing. Her baggage is too much.

Well, that’s me. I have a lot of “church” baggage, and I want to be up front about it.

There are gory details that I won’t share, but I will say this: my heart is broken. It’s been beaten down. Sometimes it was my fault. Sometimes it wasn’t. But overall, I am wounded. I have been wounded for years. And let’s face it, while your gym or internet provider wants to know why you left and begs you to stay, people in churches just don’t do that. They often take more of a “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” type of stance.

I was to the point a few months ago where I had given up on church. Not on God, I’ve never given up on Him. But I was at the point where I decided I didn’t need a church family. I simply could not put myself through the hurt again of trying to find a church and not being accepted. The idea of trying to fit in and being rejected was too much to handle.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, I read Kelly Minter’s blog post “Valentine’s Day from a Single’s Perspective,” and she spoke of how important her church community is to her. How its made her singleness less lonely. How it’s encouraged her.

“I want that,” I realized. And I decided I wouldn’t stop until I found it.

My church hurts run deep. Really deep. Like many, I’ve been pushed around, beat down, judged, ignored, given empty promises, and flat out lied to by people in the church. Because, let’s face it, churches are made up of people. People are flawed. There will never be a “perfect church” until we get to heaven.

Still, I desire a church that will at least accept me and all my baggage.

A church that will help me grow in my walk with Christ.

A church that will treat me as more than an unmarried woman.

A church that will realize I have things to offer, even though I don’t have a husband or children.

A church that will challenge me to spread God’s word and to go outside of my comfort zone to do so.

A church that will wrap its arms around me and see that I have value.

Despite my greatest efforts, I haven’t felt valued by a church in years.

So, new church home, I hope you will accept me. I hope you will let me be of service to you. I hope you will value me, and I will value you. I will let your pastor and people guide me. I will use my God-given talents to help the church.

I am scared. I am skeptical. I don’t want to get too excited. But I am hopeful that God has a place for me in your church. I hope you will be my church family. I pray I have found where I belong.

Sincerely,
Natalie, a very broken church goer

“We have created being married with children
as the superior status in the church,
but we serve a Savior who was single.”
Panelist at IF:Gathering 2017

 

 

How is that funny?

11170297_10153015085031573_8931005548228988462_o“Haven’t been sold into sex trade yet?”

My blood began to boil when I saw this comment posted on a friend’s Facebook status about visiting Thailand. It took everything in me to not respond to the woman who wrote it.

I tried to calm myself down by reminding myself that not everyone has met face-to-face with children who have been trafficked. Not everyone has had dinner in Thailand with an 8-year-old girl who was sold into the sex trade and lived a nightmare most of us can’t even imagine.

Biting my tongue (my fingers?), I didn’t write anything in response to what the woman said.

A week or so later, when my friend announced he was leaving Thailand and returning to the US, that same woman wrote this: “I’m glad to hear you avoided the trade.”

Part of me wanted to find where she lived, throw her in my car, drive her to the airport, and put her on a plane to Thailand where she could meet the thousands of children who DIDN’T avoid the trade, and see if maybe she still thought her comments were funny.

Yes, our society is overly sensitive about a lot of things. But I’m sorry if I just can’t stomach a “joke” about trafficking, especially when someone makes a joke about it twice.

12017597_10153015984556573_9042627776706687868_oDo people not realize that it’s real? There’s a reason why organizations like Destiny Rescue exist, and it’s to save children from sex trafficking. Are you getting the heaviness of that? Are you realizing the grotesque nature of that? CHILDREN are being SOLD and FORCED to have SEX.

One more time… CHILDREN are being SOLD and FORCED to have SEX.

I’ve met some of those girls. And at times it was hard to look at them and think about the disgusting things they were forced to do. I was also extremely thankful for Destiny Rescue and the work God is doing there to rescue these girls.

This isn’t an issue that’s far from home, either. Sex trafficking is very real, right here in the United States. Right here in Indiana. Right here in Fort Wayne even.

We can sit back and make jokes about it, which is incredibly sick and twisted if you ask me, or we can do something about it. Be a voice for those who have no voice.

“You may choose to look the other way,
but you can never say again
that you did not know.”
– William Wilberforce

A short video on my experience in Thailand