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Madison Firsch

Madison Firsch

MadisonRace5K“Doesn’t look like cancer.” That’s what everyone, including my dermatologist, said when I starting questioning a mole on my back in the summer of 2011.  People wondered how I had even spotted it, given its obscure location. For that, I have to credit a close friend who noticed it at the beach a year earlier.  At the time, it was flat with a dark center and a colorless border. I was fairly certain it had always been that way but I made an appointment with my dermatologist, just to be sure. He assured me that it was normal, a type of mole generally referred to as a “fried-egg”.  He told me not to worry, but suggested I come back if I noticed any changes. So I carried on as usual and kept an eye on it…

That fall, I attended the MFNE’s Shades of Hope Gala, as a guest of another philanthropic organization with whom I am involved – we supported MFNE in 2010 as our Charity of Focus. The event was lovely and listening to the survivor stories was extremely powerful.  One comment about how just one sunburn can increase your chances of skin cancer, really stood out.  Over the years, I had had more sunburns than I could count.  I remember listening to the stories and statistics and thinking how scary it all must be for these people, not knowing I would soon be in their shoes.

What I heard at the gala left an impact on me, and gave me all the more reason to keep a good watch on that mole on my back. But it wasn’t until the following summer that I started noticing changes. What was dark and flat, was now raised, pink and itchy.  I went back to my dermatologist, but again he assured me it wasn’t anything to worry about. He thought it was just irritated and gave me two options: leave it alone/come back if it gets worse or remove it on-site/biopsy it to be sure it was ok.  The worrier in me instantly knew what to do; I insisted he remove then and send it to the lab for testing… just to be sure.

In the week after my appointment, I waited calmly for the results, confident that all would be well. Oddly enough, a photo of me and my friends at the 2010 Shades of Hope Gala was featured in Boston Magazine, in an advertisement for the 2011 event. There I was, happy, smiling, and completely clueless. Perfect timing.

The following week my dermatologist called me at work to tell me that the mole wasn’t irritated, it was melanoma. The word alone sent a shock wave through my body and I was in tears before I hung up the phone.  It was the scariest news I had ever received from a doctor.  I simply could not wrap my head around it.

I left work in a haze that day, walking all the way from my office in Cambridge to my apartment in the North End.  I spent much of the walk on the phone with a nurse from my dermatologist’s office, getting all of the details in order, before calling my mother with the news that I had Stage I melanoma. I didn’t know how I would even formulate the words.  It was clear that delivering the news was as frightening as receiving it.

I was placed under the care of a team of amazing dermatologists and surgeons at the Melanoma and Pigmented Lesion Center (PLC) at Mass General Hospital, where I underwent additional screenings and a treatment plan was put in place. Two weeks later I went in for surgery.  The day started with a Sentinal Node Biopsy, which is used to help determine if/where the cancer has spread.  From that procedure, it was determined that in addition to the wide-excision to remove the melanoma on my back, I would also have the lymph nodes under both of my arms biopsied. After about 8 hours, I emerged from anesthesia in more pain than I could have imagined.  Recovering from “day surgery” turned into a week of rest on the couch, not able to even lift myself up without help.  I was fortunate to have my amazing family helping me through my recovery – assisting me with everything from brushing my hair to changing the channel on the television.

It took just over a week to get the final results back but my doctors finally called with good news – they had successfully removed the melanoma and determined that it had NOT spread! Relief washed over me and I felt incredibly lucky, but I knew that it was time to make drastic changes in my daily routine.

Looking back, I realize I did everything wrong.  I was haphazard in my skin care routine, usually applying sunscreen only after I had started to burn.  In high school, like the majority of my friends, I wanted to keep that summer glow year-round.  I wasn’t a fan of bad-smelling, streaky self-tanners so hopping into a tanning bed for 20 minutes, multiple times a week (eek!) was an easy fix.  I stopped using tanning beds in college, but still neglected to properly protect my skin from the sun outdoors.

My skin care routine has changed dramatically in the last year.  I have a six-inch scar across my back and scars under each of my arms that work as daily reminders to wear sunscreen. I don’t leave my house without applying it, regardless of how much time I plan to spend outdoors, and constantly encourage those around me to lather up too!  I’m so fortunate to have caught my melanoma early and understand that it never hurts to speak up if you see something that just doesn’t look right. You have to be your own biggest advocate and now I hope to be a voice for skin cancer in order to help educate others from this devastating, but largely preventable disease.  I joined MFNE’s Survivors Speaker Bureau providing me with the opportunity to speak to high school and college students.  I recently participated in the filming of “Exposed” MFNE’s newest educational video.  Be sure to check it out!

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