I first noticed it on the evening of Andy S---’s bar mitzvah. It was bluish-black, a rounded growth on the smooth skin above my left shoulder blade – most memorably, it clashed awkwardly with the spaghetti-strapped Hawaiian print dress that I had picked out for the occasion. It wasn’t until months later that I even thought to tell my parents, let alone go see a doctor. I was a shy 8th grader, only thirteen years old, and hiding from my crush was a much bigger concern.
* * *
I recall the day vividly about four years before, when, riding down Garnet Avenue from the Mission Bay Sportscenter, after an exhausting day of windsurfing and sailing, I had joked with my friend Jenn about it. Examining the day’s burns on my arms and legs, I laughed out loud, “Wow I’m totally gonna get skin cancer some day, I burn so much!”
Jenn’s mom pursed her lips from behind the steering wheel. “Steffi, you shouldn’t joke about that sort of thing.”
“Oh, ok. I guess you’re right, Nancy. Sorry.” Jenn and I quickly changed the subject and kept giggling in the backseat of her mother’s convertible on the way to my house. In the mind of an 11 year-old, some day exists in a far distant-future, past home mortgages, mini-vans, careers, and real lives. It doesn’t often fall in the first week of high school.
* * *
Nearly a year after the Bar Mitzvah, at the end of my usual long summer visiting my family in Germany, I returned home to San Diego to await my diagnosis. They had removed the mole before I left, but because it was so atypical, it took months to find any sort of medical match. I underwent a preliminary surgery that August to test it once more.
I went in to Dr. Mazin’s office with my mom to get the results on the Wednesday of the first week of high school. I was still only thirteen. A light chime sounded with the opening of the door.
The waiting room smelled of stale antiseptic fluid and plastic; curled magazines warmed tables, several potted plants were gathered together in a corner. We sat down between an older, arthritic man, and a young 20-something in a business suit. I held my mom’s restless hand and stared across the room: a plant in the fish tank wavered slightly as a blue-finned tetra swam by.
“Yes,” I murmured, standing up to follow my mom into patient room number three.
“You can have a seat right here, hon. Dr. Mazin will be here to see you in a minute.” The nurse pointed to the examination table. I hopped up and motioned for my mother to take the chair.
After several moments of silence, Dr. Mazin knocked softly and entered the room. He was grinning awkwardly.
“Good afternoon, Stephanie, Ms. Kraft. It’s nice to see you both. How’re you holding up there, kiddo? Have you rested enough since the surgery?” I hated his patronizing tone.
“Yeah, I feel a lot better now.” I guessed that’s what he wanted to hear.
“Good. Well, let’s discuss why you’re here. I have your lab results with me. We got them in on the fax this morning, right on time. It took us a while to fully examine what was left of the mole; I’m afraid it’s malignant – melanoma. We’ll need to schedule another surgery right away to fully determine the implications that this will have…” He went on to discuss plans of lymphectomies, but my mind was elsewhere.
I glanced down at the fax, catching a glimpse of the date on the header: Tuesday, August 22, 2001. He had lied. But no surgeon calls at home to risk reaching an answering machine – at least not to report bad news. I wondered what would have happened if I had just been to the dermatologist – earlier, before the mole had grown.
In the car on the drive home, I noticed my mom crying at the wheel. She looked ahead silently, moving only to adjust her rear-view mirror.
“Mom, what are you not telling me? Did Dr. Mazin tell you something about the melanoma while I was in the bathroom? What’s going on?” I felt a fear of my own early death growing in the back of my mind. But everyone would tell me in the coming weeks how brave I was being, how mature I was.
* * *
I don’t remember the details of the surgeries I had that week – as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized how young I actually was at the time. Ensuing national tragedies that now distinguish a clear break in our country’s history match up all too closely with my diagnosis. Most people think 2001 and they think September. For me, 2001 means late August. It’s the reason I don’t sweat under my left arm – must be the missing lymph nodes – and the reason every new mole I discover or sunburn I get sends me into a mini-existential crisis. It might be the reason I think about death on a near-daily basis.
Freshman year is a blur. I know that I had to skip volleyball practice for months after the surgeries, and that I couldn’t lift up my left arm for a year after that. But I can’t picture any of it. It’s a truth I’m only aware of in the abstract, a truth I think I’ve thought about more in recent years than I ever did back then. Only a few moments still stand out in my memory.
* * *
It was a late February afternoon in 2002, and I had the ball. The winter sun had begun to set behind my high school’s soccer field, and the air was getting thin.
“Steph, pass!!! I’m open!”
I glanced up to my right, down towards the goal. Sam was waving furiously. “Dude, we’re warming up. Who else would I pass it to?”
“Haha, I know, but you were like spacing out. We need to look like we’re doing something. Coach wants active drills, remember?”
“Sorry, my back just hurt a little. I think my scar is burning.” As I said that, I felt the searing pain above my left shoulder blade return for a brief moment. I struck the ball with my right cleat and it rolled neatly into Sam’s reach.
“Your scar? Hurting? Oh my god you’re like Harry Potter. Can you sense if Voldemort is near?”
“Seriously! It’s probably pain left over from the surgery…”
“No, really. You’ve got like some sort of wizard power going on or something. That’s awesome.”
“Sam, it was cancer.” I laughed at the seriousness of my words.
“Whatever, Harry Potter.” She smiled and kicked the ball back. The nickname stuck for the rest of the season.
* * *
After that year, the reality of the melanoma faded and my life in high school continued on a relatively normal course. In the summer after my sophomore year, my friends and I participated in the local 24 hour Relay for Life to benefit the American Cancer Society. I signed up for social reasons – after all, I didn’t feel like I had real cancer. Everyone was going to be there, including my new boyfriend, and besides, we needed the community service hours to graduate.
As we set up our tents that afternoon, I saw the ACS-sponsored “Wear Sunscreen! Take care of your skin now – it will thank you later!” signs that lined the racetrack. Targeting tan-orexic Southern Californians, no doubt. My best friend Sara came running up to me with a bag of Doritos in her hand, a grin on her face.
“I’m so excited for tonight. Derek even said he’d run and get us Starbucks later – it’s so great that your brother has a car, dude.”
“Clearly. He’s like in love with you.”
“Haha yeah, whatever. Oh by the way, are you gonna head over to the survivors’ table?”
“I don’t know. I was thinking about it, I guess. Should I?”
“Well, um, you did have cancer. My mom’s getting a shirt too! You guys can wear them together. It’ll be cute.” She laughed.
I looked over at the purple tent a hundred yards down the track. If I get a shirt, people will know. I’ll have to talk about it. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. Not for something out of my control.
“Yeah. I don’t really feel like wearing the shirt right now, but I’ll get one.”
“Sweet. I’ll come with you.”
As we walked over to the tent, I felt a small rush of anxiety. Every time I talked about my cancer, I felt like I was cheating something. I never had chemotherapy, I never lost my hair, I only missed a few days of school. This is going to be so awkward. People from school are here.
At the survivors’ tent, a middle aged woman in a Relay for Life t-shirt greeted me warmly, “Hi hon, are you a survivor?”
“Uh…,” I paused for a moment, not wanting to say it out loud.
“Yeah, she had melanoma!” Sara interjected. I blushed.
“Should I write my name here?”
“Sure, just fill out your information on this clipboard,” she explained, handing me a pen. “What size t-shirt would you like?”
“I’ll take a medium, I guess.” I wouldn’t be wearing it around, and I was sure it would make a great shirt to sleep in.
“Alright! Here you go.” The t-shirt was a bright purple version of the one we had all received that morning, with the word SURVIVOR written boldly across the back. There was no way to wear it quietly. “We’ll be doing survivor testimonials on the main stage around 3, and there’ll be a survivors’ lap around the track at 3:30. Be sure to join us then!”
“Ok, thank you.” I grabbed my shirt, pulled Sara’s arm, and walked away quickly. When we got back to our group’s area, I threw the t-shirt in my tent and grabbed a water bottle out of the cooler. I joined some of my friends for a game of poker and within minutes, my mind was elsewhere. An hour later, Sara suddenly looked up from our circle, towards the stage.
“Hey Steph, they’re doing the testimonial thing. You gonna go?”
“I don’t really have anything to say. Plus, I’d be like the youngest one.”
“Just say your name and what you had. That’s what most people are doing.” I watched the other survivors go up one by one, telling their stories into the microphone. Most of them were older women, most likely breast cancer survivors. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
When the last speaker had finished, a representative from the ACS came on stage to thank everyone for their participation and courage. Ironic, I have the courage to “beat” cancer, but not to talk about it. She asked for a moment of silence before releasing a cage of doves. The birds fluttered out loudly, circling around the track a few times before flying into the eucalyptus trees nearby. “Alright, now it’s time for a special lap for the survivors and their families. Please, everyone, let’s gather at the 100m mark!”
“Steph, where’s your shirt?”
“You’re gonna do the lap, right? Dude I’ll come with you if you need me to.” Sara made fun of me for having cancer all the time – even today, she’ll never let me forget that the opening line of my college essay read, My diagnosis with malignant melanoma at the beginning of high school…. – but she’s always been supportive in her own way.
I didn’t want to do the survivors lap, because I didn’t feel like one. I didn’t want people to see me in that way. But Sara’s goading was soon echoed by the rest of my friends, and I had no choice but to grab my t-shirt, pull it on over my hoodie, and join the sea of purple-clad relay participants. As I was putting it on, I noticed some other classmates of ours look at me, some of them puzzled. I hadn’t ever publicized my melanoma, and only my closest friends knew what had happened. Sara and I met up with her mother, who had donned her purple and driven to the track just for this part of the day. I tried to squeeze in to the middle of the pack, but Sara pushed me back out to the edges. A crowd from our high school had gathered, some of our classmates were cheering. I looked at the ground while we walked, just hoping that it would end quickly. When it did, I tore the t-shirt off and went back to playing cards.
Later that night, white paper bags lit with candles were positioned and on the bleachers, lit by volunteers to spell out the words LIFE and HOPE. Individuals donating a dollar to the Cancer Society could decorate their own paper bag luminarias to line the track with messages to friends and relatives affected by cancer. At 9:00, the candles were lit and the relay participants were asked to take a moment to circle the track and read the messages.
I walked with some of my friends, reading the words of our fellow participants – Mommy we miss you, To Jane, a beautiful mother, daughter, and wife: 5 years of remission and counting! We love you, Patrick, I’ll keep the fight alive in your memory…. Each bag was handwritten, some with words of inspiration, some with words of grief. Others just had names written on them. I couldn’t read them all, but I understood the message.
Halfway around the track, I stopped in front of a colorful bag – the words, Jessica, our darling daughter, we miss you more every day – Mom and Dad. RIP Jessica Brown, 1983-1998 were spelled out lovingly in blue crayon. Before I could catch myself, my eyes were wet, mascara was running down my cheeks from the corner of my lids. I grabbed Sara’s hand but she let go to put her arm around me. Our friend Nikki came up on the other side of me and the three of us continued around the track, arms linked. I hadn’t felt this way since that drive home from Dr. Mazin’s office almost two years before. I didn’t want to imagine my mother cry again, but the idea wouldn’t leave my head. I held on tightly to my friends, suddenly aware that I had survived.