“I am struck with the thought that maybe I wasn’t meant to see the world that summer. Maybe I was meant to see something a whole lot more important.”
When I was a little girl, I was set on the idea that I would one day be a flight attendant. I’m not sure if it was because I loved the confidence of the colour navy, or if it was because the thought of suitcases on wheels was still the coolest, or if it was the allure of seeing the world on someone else’s tab. Whatever it was, by highschool, all things stewardess-esque had become something an obsession for me. I wrote letters to airlines, I got in for information interviews, I made sure I was up on my second language. And more importantly, I memorized every announcement I might one day get to recite into an intercom.
By the time I was 21 and had graduated from university with my first degree, I was not only finally done with school (momentarily), I was old enough to serve alcohol. I could make my dream come true at last.
And so it was that I became one of the candidates in the Summer of 1994 Canadian Airlines Partner Air Atlantic grad class. With daily take-offs and landings scheduled by the half-dozen for me in and out of exotic locales like Gander, Stephenville, and Torbay, Newfoundland, working for a wee airline meant I didn’t exactly end up seeing much of the world, on my tab or anyone else’s for that matter. Unless you count humdrum little backroad motels in dusty towns that boast one restaurant, movie theatre, and a bar – all in the same room.
What I did end up seeing was something else altogether.
During my countless take-offs and landings, as I departed from and arrived at these charming enclaves, I was frequently left with nothing to do except stare at the skin of my arms, peeking out from under my navy sleeves, while I was seated in my jumpseat. Take-off after take-off and landing after landing, I began to notice one mole in particular that seemed to be changing shapes ever so very slightly. It wasn’t big and hairy and witchy. It was just starting to look less like a circle and more like a blob. I wasn’t worried, just intrigued. Months later, I would off-handedly mention this intrigue to my GP, who months later would get me in to see a dermatologist, who months later would have the results of that one easy little biopsy. My intriguing little mole was malignant melanoma. And they had caught it “just in time” (months later).
Through much of the 1980s, I believed that nothing did more for a girl’s skin like slathering on a concoction of baby oil and well, baby oil, prior to the time in the afternoon when the sun is sure to be at its hottest. A red, itchy, peeling burn and tight skin by the end of the day meant one thing: Victory. For a burn on Saturday meant a tan by Tuesday. And while I knew words like skin cancer, I was convinced I wasn’t in any real danger. My college co-tanning pal and I both joked that by the time we get skin cancer, there will be a cure. Now, pass the baby oil.
By 1994 – in my case, thanks to short uniform sleeves and long stints in a jump seat – we had each learned of our own melanoma diagnoses.
While I was bummed that my days sprawled on a beach blanket holding a mirror under my face to double the impact of the sun’s rays would likely be over, in 1994, I didn’t really get that melanoma was any different from any other kind of skin cancer. I kind of guessed they were all the same, really. Chop it off, and carry on. At 21, I did very little – okay, no – research and after some extensive surgery that left an unsightly scar on my left forearm, continued on as if my one-time run-in with the Big “C” was little more than a mild inconvenience.
It wasn’t until the summer I turned 30, a near decade after I had grown tired of turbulence, tomato juice, and terminals, that my new dermatologist noticed an odd growth on my back and that I learned my melanoma had come back that I decided I should probably spend some time with good old Google.
What I learned was this: Of all skin cancers, only 3% are melanomas.
In the past 20 years, rates of Pediatric Melanoma have gone up over 100%.3 Canadians will die each day from melanoma.
What I also learned was that my old college classmate, also 30 that year, was diagnosed with her own recurrence. While mine would end up yet again resembling the remains of a shrapnel encounter, hers would leave her as one of the 3-a-day stats. She died only months later.
I suddenly got it. Melanoma isn’t just a mild inconvenience. By virtue of its presence as a tumour on the skin’s largest organ, melanoma is one of the fastest spreading, most far-reaching, insidious cancers on the market. First it appears on the skin. Then it appears in the brain, or in the liver, or on the lymph nodes… Surviving melanoma with only an ugly scar or two is winning the cancer lottery.
When I think back to how vehemently I sought after a professional gig as a flight attendant, and then how I lost interest in it as a career choice only months into it, I am struck with the thought that maybe the reason I was meant to experience it was for the simple life-saving act of sitting in my jump seat. With not a heck of a lot to do except stare at that one mole – the one that changed shapes ever so very slightly – I am struck with the thought that maybe I wasn’t meant to see the world that summer. Maybe I was meant to see something a whole lot more important.