Skin Cancer: Why You Need to Get That Mole Checked (Maybe Twice)

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Despite avoiding the sun, actress and writer Jill Kargman was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer that her dermatologist missed. Photo: ©Pamela Berkovic

Several years ago, writer and star of Odd Mom Out Jill Kargman got a diagnosis of an extremely rare form of skin cancer. It was surprising considering Jill was in her early 30s and someone who absolutely never tans. Even more shocking was that her dermatologist told her–on three different visits–that a mole that kept bleeding, was nothing.  

It was only because her dermatologist felt that he was above administering Botox, that Jill even had it looked at by another doctor. That doctor, Dr. Anita Cela took off the mole immediately to be cautious. A week later she was diagnosed with Stage 2 or 3 Amelanotic melanoma, which required immediate surgery. 

After hearing Jill’s story, a few years ago,  I immediately booked an appointment at a dermatologist, concerned about an itchy mole on my back that had turned black. The doctor told me it was nothing, but I insisted that he biopsy it. It turned out he was wrong. The mole was abnormal. It had to be taken out right away, leaving me with a two-inch scar on my back, but luckily nothing worse. 

For Skin Cancer Awareness Month, we wanted to share Jill’s essay on her experience from her book Sometimes I Feel Like a Nut.  It’s reminder to get your moles checked–sometimes twice: 

Tumor Humor by Jill Kargman

In my mid-thirties, I was starting to feel extra old, especially when I looked at my mug in the mirror after waking up. Puffy, creased, spotted, tired, I’d examine each new wrinkle, cringing as I plucked a gray hair. As with all things in my life, I am black or white. Impulsive. Extreme. I went from my mirror to my address book to phone my dermatologist, one of the best in New York. I took the first available appointment.

“So I’m thinking,” I said to the man who was used to just checking my countless moles, “I’d like to get some Botox, please. On my elevens. The two vertical gashes above my nose where I seem to hold my stress. I need them gone. They’re so deep I could canoe down them with my family.”

He looked at me through his glasses, horrified. “I would never, ever inject Botox,” he said. “I’m a medical dermatologist. I could make a fortune doing it, but I don’t feel like injecting poison in people’s faces. If you really want this, you need to get what I call a scumbag dermatologist.”

I shrugged. Okay! So I found one. A pal of mine has six kids and got the ‘tox; she looks earthy and pretty and so not plastic. Sold. She made the intro to Dr. Anita Cela, who was not at all a scumbag but rather a cool, attractive, un-Barbie New York mom with a thriving practice, chill bedside demeanor, and relaxed, natural vibe. After a series of the tiny shots, which were little leagues next to my tattoo, I might add, I was finito. I was getting up to get dressed when I had a quickie last question for sweet Dr. Cela, who was already walking out. “Do you mind just taking a quick peek at this mole?” I asked. “My other doctor said it was fine, but it keeps bleeding.”

“How long has it been bleeding?” she asked, coming to check the spot on my right upper thigh.

“Oh, like on and off for over three years,” I said blithely.

“Really?” she asked. “Your other doctor didn’t want to biopsy it?”

“Well, no, I mean he saw it three times and he said it’s benign and that it’s in trafficked area and that it may have been rubbed by a garment or something.”

“Hmm. Well, it looks totally benign, but if it’s bleeding. I’d get rid of it!” She told the nurse to prep and then sliced it off. I didn’t think about it again.
Then, a week later, in a deluge of biblical proportions, I was pushing my son Fletch in the stroller while holding a massive umbrella when my cell phone rang. It was my doctor with the pathology report.

“Jill,” she said in a grave tone, “I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid I’m calling with some very bad news.” I stopped on the street, stunned, as my heart started pounding out of my chest like Roger Rabbit’s. “You have a very rare type of skin cancer. I was so shocked when I got the pathology report that I called back the lab to have them double-check the results, explaining you were a younger mother, but they confirmed the findings. you need to head to Memorial Sloan-Kettering right away…”

My surgeon, Daniel Coit, who is the head of tumors at MSK Cancer Center, explained that they needed to take out the lymph nodes in my vag to see if the cancer had spread, plus obviously take our the whole area around the tumor, which was placed at stage 2 because it was growing into my leg beneath the mole. I was slated to go under the knife four days later. I looked at the surgeon’s associate and said, “So, like, what are the chances that, like…I die?” He looked at his colleague then back at me, clearing his throat. “Fifteen percent.”

I burst into tears. “I said one-five, not five-oh!” he said, surprised at my weepiness. “I know!” I said through my tears, “That’s still bad! I have three kids! That’s one in six! Point something!” I froze. People around me went into action, sending flowers, notes, and chocolate, but I was in panic mode. I just couldn’t imagine dealing with years of battling this crap of scans, blood tests, radical diet change (fourteen Sprites a week became one, and buh-bye to Britney Spearsian snack food, including a Cheeto-dust-free existence), and more vitamin horse pills in a day than I have fingers and toes. As if I had time!

Four days later, I went in and was facing going under anesthesia for the first time in my life.  Before my surgery, I had to go for tests in Nuclear Medicine, where they injected a radioactive dye into the site and the nodes and I had to lie completely still in a tube…for seventy minutes.

Sweat. Pouring.“Seventy minutes?” I gasped. “Oh my god, I can’t I can’t do it. I CAN’T LIE IN THERE FOR SEVENTY MINUTES HOLY %*&#(!”

The nurse calmly explained they would sedate me with a megadose of Klonopin and that that I’d be fine. I started breathing heavily I feared I’d lapse into hyperventilation that would necessitate a brown paper bag. I swallowed the pill and felt the beats of my heart speeding up rather than decelerating. I was shaking from the cold hospital creeping through my little gown and I thought I wouldn’t have the strength to deal. And then something happened.

The door opened and in walked another patient for the same procedure. She was eight. I instantly felt so loserish for freaking when this precious child—a second-grader two years older than my oldest daughter—was facing the exact same thing. In that moment, my whole world changed. Of course I always knew there were sick kids, but when faced with my own mortality I spun into self-protection mode and never realized how lucky I was that it was me and not one of my three children. I thought about this cute girl’s mother, sobbing there in the claustro waiting room with tattered issues of National Geographic. I pictured it being me and how I would pray to switch places. So, see, my wish came true. It was me, over my kids. And from then on, I never complained, never felt scared. Not even once.

Okay, except when I woke up and saw the eight-inch scar up my thigh. And that wasn’t even the bad one—the vag one was way more painful an area, as the groin holds tender nerves, but eventually the pain subsided. (Thank you, Percocet!)

When I had to face my first bathing suit season looking not unlike Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas, I was okay with it. Actually, better than okay—I weirdly dig it. It’s a jagged badge of honor that shows how lucky I am. And it’s a reminder that I need to slather sunblock on my kids like I’m paper-mâchéing them in zinc. Can’t be too careful! And can’t be too grateful. My vanity saved my f-ing life. Thank the lord for scumbag dermatologists.

Odd Mom Out debuts June 8th on Bravo