They say laughter is the best medicine, but it’s hard to remember that when faced with life-threatening news.
When the dermatologist first said the word “melanoma,” my mind fizzed into a state of paralytic shock, especially as this appointment was supposed to be a standard cosmetic procedure. The grayish/blue mole that emerged from my cheek had injured my vanity, but thoughts of it being anything other than a superficial nuisance never crossed my mind.
“It looks dangerous,” the dermatologist frowned, lowering her hand-held light. “I recommend removing it today.”
I inhaled sharply. “Dangerous?”
“I won’t know for sure until the biopsy results come in, but it looks like melanoma,” she said.
The moment the doctor left to find a nurse, I whipped out my phone and Googled “melanoma.” By the time she returned, I considered myself an expert on this disease. I could also name all the Hollywood celebrities that had died from it.
I grabbed her wrist: “Level with me, Doc. How much longer do I have left to live?”
The doctor gently pried my fingers loose from their vise grip. “I doubt it’s metastasized to the point where your life is in danger,” she said.
Clearly the good doctor doesn’t read enough Google articles. As the nurse prepared a tray of tools and the doctor aimed a megawatt lamp over my face, I took another stab: “What symptoms would I be experiencing if it had metastasized?”
“Again, I doubt it has, but you’d be having night sweats, fatigue, loss of appetite,” she said. “Now, please turn your face—”
“Aha!” I shrieked, thrusting my finger in her face. “But I do have fatigue. Lots of it! And sometimes I get night sweats.”
The doctor remained stoic. “Well, you do have three children, so that might account for the fatigue. When I get the results of the biopsy, we’ll discuss how to proceed from there.”
I left the office teary-eyed and afraid. I wasn’t ready to leave this world, not by a long shot. There were books to be written, places to travel, German Shepherds to adopt, and most of all, future grandchildren to meet. During the car ride home, I made myself a promise: No matter what the future held, I would face it with dignity and bravery, silence and strength. My family and friends shouldn’t know until the end was inevitable.
Unfortunately, I broke every promise within seconds of arriving home.
“Heidi….?” My husband gazed at me in dismay. “What’s wrong?”
“The doctor thinks it’s cancer,” I wailed, falling to my knees and curling into the fetal position on the floor.
Daniel tilted his head like a dog trying to make sense of his master’s words. “Cancer?”
“Melanoma,” I specified. “But don’t tell the children.”
My 6-year-old chose that moment to come into the room. He danced around and sang, “Mommy has melanoma…Mommy has melanoma…”
Later that night, I sobbed in my walk-in closet. “They say the good die young, and I’ve been sooo, sooo good.”
“Not that good,” Daniel reassured me, patting my hand.
I glared at him before continuing. “I give you my blessing to remarry, but she must be a kind person. She must…b-be…nice to the children,” I hiccupped.
“I’m never remarrying,” Daniel said with such conviction in his voice that I knew he meant it.
“That’s s-so sweet,” I cried.
“One marriage is all I could ever handle,” he said in a way that made me reconsider the sweetness of his earlier comment.
The following week passed slower than an aging tortoise with a cement shell as I waited for the biopsy results. My family and friends called often, ostensibly to check if I’d heard from the doctor, but really to make sure I wasn’t still hiding in the closet. It was during these calls and visits that I began using my sense of humor — albeit the dark kind — to cope with my anxiety.
Finally, the phone call came: A nurse informed me I had precancerous cells in my cheek and needed surgery to do an extensive removal. I was cautiously optimistic.
“Wait a minute… Are you saying that I don’t have melanoma?”
“Correct,” the nurse replied.
I swallowed hard and clutched the phone. “I-I’ll live?”
“Um, yes.” The nurse sounded startled. “But more of your cheek needs to be removed so it doesn’t turn into melanoma.”
Immediately, I called my parents. “The good news is that it’s only pre-cancer,” I said. “The bad news is that my cheek needs to be removed, so I’ll probably end up looking like Lord Voldemort’s lovechild.”
“You will not,” my mother chided.
“Now I know how the boy from Wonder feels,” I continued. “Little children will cry when they see me. I’ll be known as Mrs. Scarface.”
“This is good news, Heidi. Try to focus on that.”
“Says the woman without the disfigured face.”
There’s a Yiddish expression that my bubbe used to say: “Shainer gelechter!” which—according to her — meant laughing about something sad. (Then again, she was born and bred in Nashville, Tennessee, so I can’t guarantee the accuracy of her Yiddish.)
So often, life can be fraught with misgivings and devastation, sorrow and darkness, but it’s your reaction to these events that count. To maintain a sense of humor (even the dark kind) and the ability to laugh can make all the difference. And as a pre-melanoma survivor, let me say this: courage and bravery is admirable, but laughter is still the best medicine of all.