Two weeks ago today, I wrote a post on the mystery of cancer. It was in response to the guy from the Beastie Boys dying. Two days later, I was diagnosed with skin cancer and wrote another post on the topic. This is my last post on cancer. I’m officially done with it.

The day I was diagnosed with a tiny little flake of skin cancer on my chest, I wasn’t expecting it. I had basal cell carcinoma. Nine days after being diagnosed, I had it burned off. Now it’s gone. And I feel lucky. Of all the kinds of cancers you can get, I got the good one. No, there are no guarantees, but basal cell isn’t deadly and for 99.99% of the two-million people who contract it each year, once it’s removed it doesn’t return. Not in the same spot, anyway. So mine’s gone. And I’m grateful. And yes, I have to be more careful in the sun now. Which, for this Florida boy, won’t be easy.

The whole thing was a strange trip. I mean, it’s cancer. The big C. When you are diagnosed with it, it doesn’t matter what ‘kind’ it is – you’re labeled. It’s like being handed a black spot by a pirate. And when they learn you have it, most people say, “I’m sorry.” Until last week, I was one of those “I’m sorry” people – because I was ignorant. I just assumed that all cancer was a death sentence unless you go through six months of chemo. Um, wrong.

I quit smoking a couple of months ago after a freak illness felled me and forced me into the hospital for 36 hours (for just $18,000 by the way) where for two nights I listened to old people down the hall wail in pain as they died from cancer. I never really liked smoking. Yes I started smoking because it was cool. And sure, I enjoyed one after a good meal or with my morning coffee, but I never liked the taste or smell of cigarettes. If anything, I resented smoking because I couldn’t quit. But that one trip to the hospital was enough to shake me up and get me to take more responsibility for my body. So I stopped. I immediately gained 10 pounds, of course, so now I’m working on being responsible for that too. But I digress, the main reason I quit smoking was so that I didn’t die of some horrible form of lung cancer that killed me slowly while my family stood beside and watched me whittle away. Then within weeks of quitting smoking, I’m diagnosed with cancer. I could have predicted this had I stopped to consider irony.

Over the past nine days I’ve learned a lot about the idea of cancer. First of all, yes, it’s still a mystery. Despite our breakthroughs over the years, cancer is still unsolvable. It is treatable, however. Some cancers, like mine, barely qualify as cancer at all. So having cancer is not necessarily a death sentence. If anything, it just attaches a stigma to you that you can never shake. You’re in the club now. Pink ribbons and all that. It’s just I will never think of myself as a ‘survivor’ after my short bout with cancer. It wasn’t so much survival as it was surrender. Don’t’ get me wrong, I respect the hell out of the survivor club (since most of those people had to actually fight) I just don’t want a membership card.

The most important thing I learned from this ordeal, however, is something I already knew.That people care. I continue to be reminded of how great the digital age is when it comes to the real things of real life. Any time I’ve ever shared anything important, people have reached out through the wires and glass and connected with me. An anniversary. An illness. Asking for help. The good. The bad. The all of it. I’m convinced that one day we’ll look back and agree that the greatest purpose of the internet is enhanced human connectivity. Over the course of those nine days I was approached by several people via social media who shared their own stories of enduring and solving this type of skin cancer. Most all of them grew up in the deep south below I-10 before the era of SPF sunscreen – just like me. These people helped me to understand the nature of the disease and helped calm me down after the initial shock. I’m extremely grateful for them. And for all the support from everyone else.

Nine days later, my little fleck of cancer is gone. Yes, it was responsible for a few sleepless nights, but now it’s been burned away. In fact, I now have a little black scar on my chest where it looks like someone put out a cigarette. How appropriate. Anyway, this scar will surely be a lasting reminder of a few things.

1) That God employs irony to make Himself laugh.

2) That I am a fallible being that needs to respect the sun as a massive nuclear reactor that pummels the earth with radiation.

3) That no matter what happens in my life, sharing my experiences is paramount to my sanity. Because I know I have friends who will help me get through virtually anything.

Thanks for reading. Now go apply some sunscreen.


Jim Mitchem

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Jim Mitchem

Writer. Father to daughters. Husband. Ad man. Raised by wolves. @jmitchem on twitter. First novel, Minor King, out now.