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Skin Diaries This is Brave

This is Brave: Taylor Runkel

My melanoma story started when I was twenty-four and only a few years into my professional and young adult life. I was working full-time as a Human Resources Generalist in downtown Saint Paul and teaching dance part-time in White Bear Lake. The theme of my life was busy, busy, busy. I had spent the first part of 2019 travelling to college career fairs for work. It wasn’t until April that I finally got in to see the dermatologist to check on an eczema breakout on my hands. Here is my timeline…

April 11, 2019:  I went into the dermatologist to get eczema cream and have a mole on my calf looked at. The perfect way to describe the mole was that it was the size and height of the eraser on a #2 pencil. It started bothering me sometime in the Fall of 2018. I couldn’t remember if it was flat or if there was anything there before, but suddenly it was really raised and was annoying me because I would have to be careful shaving my leg around it.  The dermatologist inspected it and felt that it wasn’t anything overly concerning. Thankfully, she had it scraped and biopsied. 

April 16, 2019: After my appointment, I forgot about the biopsy. I went right back to working and staying busy. When they called to give me my results, I actually ignored it because I was in a meeting, and then just went about my day. At 4:45pm, I finally listened to the voicemail from the dermatologist office letting me know I needed to call them back to walk through my results. Their phone lines closed at 4:30pm, so I would have to call back the next morning.

My gut dropped, I knew something wasn’t right, but I finished my workday, then went to teach dance at night.  The nerves were there all night. I decided to stay at my parents that night, just so I could have my Mom with me to call in the morning.

April 17, 2019: At 7:59:59am my mom and I called the office together. For the first time I heard, “Taylor, your biopsy came back as Melanoma, I’m so sorry”.  I didn’t even really hear the rest of the conversation. Thankfully, my Mom was there to listen. Having someone to help you absorb information at every appointment is huge!

Cancer was in my life… and it was associated with my name. They couldn’t give me any more information other than telling me I would need surgery and I was being referred to a Plastic Surgeon who specialized in Melanoma.

April 18, 2019:  We met with Dr. Economou at 10:00am. He walked through the pathology of my mole. It was slow growing (3 on a scale of 10). At the intermediate depth range 2.33mm with no aggressive features. He explained that melanoma is spread by the lymph system, so my lymph nodes in my left groin would need to be checked. From just feeling for swelling/hardness, he didn’t feel anything, so we were feeling positive that they would be clean. Of course, I had spent the previous night googling (a horrible idea) and I knew that if the cancer had left my leg, it could be anywhere in my body, and the anxiety was terrifying.

He explained that he would be removing an area of skin on my lower leg around the mole and that I would have a full-thickness skin graft. The skin would come from the incision site on my groin where they would remove a lymph node to be biopsied. Surgery was scheduled for the next Tuesday at Abbott Northwestern.

April 23, 2019: My “posse” (Mom, Dad, stepdad Tony, and my boyfriend Charlie) and I arrived at the hospital for my appointment. First step of the process was to have a radioactive dye injected into the mole site, where it would travel up my leg and light up the lymph node that the ankle was ‘first’ supported by. While I didn’t acquire any superpowers from the radioactive dye, my X-Ray did show that two lymph lighting up meaning both may have to be removed.

My posse and I checked in at the surgery center and waited for the doctors to take me back. My surgery team introduced themselves (they were the BEST most caring people) and made me feel so supported and reassured. I was hooked up to my IVs, gave my posse a hug and a kiss, and walked to the OR. (Side Note: I was that teenage girl that sobbed like a toddler from the anesthesia for my wisdom teeth removal. Apparently, that happens when you’re really nervous.)

I walked in and saw all the machines, instruments, and bed that I was going to be asleep on. When they asked me “How are you doing?” the only think I could say was “ahhhh well this isn’t like Grey’s Anatomy.” They reassured me by saying “Nope! We’re real doctors!”.  I laid down on the bed and was hooked up to many machines and the tears started to come. Luckily, the nurse anesthetist asked me about Charlie, and I talked about him and how happy he makes me until I was asleep. After surgery, Dr. Economou explained that he removed two lymph nodes (which would be HUGE for me later on). I had a pressurized bandage stitched to my skin graft and a boot on to ensure my calf had no movement. It was over!

April 25, 2019:  After a lot of pain the day after surgery, switching to stronger pain meds, and almost passing out the first time I saw my groin incision, I was recovering at home and got the results of my biopsies. The margins around the mole were clean. The second lymph node (farther away from the mole) was clean. The first lymph node was not, it had seven individual cancer cells. They weren’t multiplying/dividing yet, but they were there. This meant that I was officially in the Stage III Melanoma category.

Dr. Economou reassured me that, other than being able to say that the lymphs were both clean, this was the next best outcome. We were hopeful that since no cancer cells had gone to the second lymph, the rest of my body was clean. I would have to get a PET/CT scan to confirm. I would also meet with an oncologist to discuss immunotherapy, and a general surgeon to discuss more lymph nodes being removed.

April 30, 2019: I had my PET/CT scan.

May 1, 2019:  I got the call that there was ‘no evidence of disease’ – marking the first anniversary I hope to celebrate the rest of my life.  TODAY – March 1, 2021: Since 2019 a lot in my life has changed. The year after I was declared NED, I underwent a year of immunotherapy—Keytruda (pembromiliza)—and worked on just getting through it. I finally had a chance to create space for myself to process all that had happened.

The biggest change for me was leaving HR – I took time to evaluate what was important to me in a career long term, and I went back to one of my original passions in undergrad. I wanted to become a therapist. I was accepted into graduate school at UMN in the Summer of 2020 and am now in my second semester of their Integrated Behavioral Health program. It’s the first step to becoming an LPCC (licensed professional clinical counselor). I even started working part-time as a health unit coordinator at Regions Hospital. I’m also looking to buy my first house with Charlie, who was the best supporter throughout my entire journey for me and my parents. My habits have changed too. I started buying and wearing UPF 50+ clothing and I tell anyone who is willing to listen about sun safety! Internally, the gift of coming to terms with your own mortality at 24 makes it much easier to say ‘no’ to the things that don’t bring me joy, to practice gratitude every day, and allow myself to show up just as I am. I’ve come to love my scars as they show strength, I never knew I would have, along with an appreciation for my body that is so much deeper than my skin’s surface.

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