I became a survivor in 2001 when I was diagnosed with melanoma.
The mole on my arm had just grown there about a year before. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I had gone to two doctors to get it checked out, both of whom said that it was okay. It didn’t look funny, so I just let it go. Six months passed, and it started to get itchy. I’d scratch it and think, “That’s not right.” I went to a dermatologist and that’s when I was diagnosed. After that, I went to the hospital to get a sentinel node biopsy to check out if my lymph nodes were okay. Unfortunately, it had traveled into my lymph system. I was supposed to go on a year of treatment with interferon. I made it through nine months. Interferon’s a pretty tough treatment to go through. It was suggested, but not enforced, that I could choose how long I wanted to do it based on how I would respond to the treatment. I went through the nine months. I finished with my treatment, waited about a month, and I went back to work. I’ve been okay since then. I go for my regular CAT scans.
Depression was very acute during treatment. That’s one of the stated side effects of the medication, and I was on antidepressants during that time. I don’t deal with that on a day-to-day basis anymore, but there are definite times where I do swing back into that mode. Perhaps it’s somewhat like anxiety that I feel in my life. That was my way that I dealt with the cancer. Times in my life that are stressful or upsetting, I can slip back into those modes of depression or anxiety. I saw a psychiatrist for a while to deal with the depression and the anxiety. Once I felt that I had gotten past that and I had figured out ways of coping with that well enough, I was okay to operate on my own. When times of anxiety and depression do hit, I try to take a step back and be thankful for the things that I have in my life and try not to get so wound up in everything else going on. I go for a walk. I try to relax myself in ways that my psychiatrist had helped me with before. I don’t go to counseling anymore. I think that I’m able to deal with it well enough on my own.
It’s not that I’m angry about getting cancer. I feel a lot of anger about the fact that people blame me for getting cancer, and I know that’s a unique thing to say. Melanoma is a so-called preventable cancer. A lot of people, their initial question when I tell them I’ve had melanoma is, “Did you get a lot of sunburns?” That, for me, is really upsetting. That’s what I feel angry about. It’s turned from me feeling angry that that person asked me to being angry that there isn’t information out there that says that regular people can get skin cancer as well. It’s not just people that have light skin. It’s not people that sun baked when they were children. There are so many people out there who are susceptible to this disease. That’s what frustrates me, and I really want to get that information out there. I want people to know that anyone can get this.
I have a visible scar on my arm, and a lot of people end up asking me about it. At first, I would tell people and they would say, “Did you get sunburns?” I’d get really upset and feel that they were blaming me or that it was my fault. So I stopped telling people what it was from. Now, I’m just trying to be a little bit more open about it and say, “I had cancer.” I still get the same questions. I feel confident now saying, “I didn’t sun bake when I was younger. I don’t have light skin. Anyone can get this. You should really be proactive about any moles that you have, getting it checked.” So I try to do it on a grassroots level, trying to talk to people one at a time, and spread the word that way. I’m always aware of my scar. I always know that people are noticing it, because so many people have asked me about it. You walk into a room and you assume that people see it. It’s not much more than awareness. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s quite a big scar. I would never try to get it fixed, because that’s who I am, and it means so much to me that I went through that experience. It’s also a good reminder. Every time I look in the mirror and see it, I think to myself how far I’ve come, what I’ve gone through, that I should be so proud of who I am. If anything, it’s a good thing.
Dealing with cancer while I was with my boyfriend, now my fiancé, was very difficult. Not only for me, because I was going through so many things, but it was so difficult for him. People would come up to me and say, “How are you doing? Are you doing okay? Can I help you with anything?” But no one asked him how he was doing. That was really frustrating for him. He probably felt just as anxious and scared as I did. It was a really difficult time for him. I saw behaviors in him that I’d never seen before. I saw him drinking more than he was before, just because that was his way of dealing with it. That almost made things worse for both of us, because I got frustrated that he was doing that. It was a difficult time for us. He’s now doing okay, but he still does have a lot of really strong feelings about what happened. He somehow feels like he’s responsible for it. It had gone into my body by the time we had checked it. He felt that it was his responsibility to be on top of things, that he should have told me to go to a dermatologist earlier for my mole. So he feels a lot of what I’ve gone through.
In terms of communicating with my fiancé, it’s really hard, because he doesn’t like to talk about it. He’s a great communicator normally about most things. It’s such a hard period in both of our lives, and he doesn’t like to talk about it. But we do, once in a while, sit down and have a good long conversation about what he’s going through and how I feel. I think that my fiancé gets anxious about a lot of things. He definitely gets anxious about losing me. I am such a big part of his life, and he’s such a big part of mine that to lose each other or for him to lose me would be so devastating. I think another part of his anxiety is based on the fact that anytime we go out late at night or anytime we eat fast food, he feels like he is not helping me make the best decisions in my life to stay healthy. He feels like he needs to be my guardian. And he doesn’t. I’m living my life, but that’s how he feels. I think it’s always going to be like that. He’s probably changed his eating habits, because I’ve changed my eating habits. He’s eating a lot better now.
Meeting other survivors was really an important part of my healing process. When I was diagnosed, I was being treated in a hospital room where most of the cancer survivors were much older than me. Why was I so young and I have this disease that older people get? I was really upset about that, so meeting other people who were my age was a really important thing for me to do. I met with people through Gilda’s Club. You go through a lot of things when you’re younger with cancer that people who are a little bit older might not go through. What’s it like to date someone when you’ve got cancer? How do you bring it up when it’s a new relationship? There are all sorts of things that you deal with at that age. It’s really important to talk to other people who are going through the same thing.
Live strong, to me, means that you should continue living with a positive attitude. Even when things get you down, you have to keep a smile on your face or do something that makes you happy to put that smile back on your face. I live strong by cooking. It’s my new-found passion ever since I got this illness. It’s been my biggest source of pleasure. I live strong by exercising every day. I try to get out there. Even if it’s just for a half-hour walk, I do something. It clears my head. And trying to do all the great things in my life that I love to do: traveling, hanging out with my fiancé, watching TV, anything that makes me happy. Do as many of those things as possible.
My name is Jessica Fiorillo. I’m 28 years old, and I’m a three-year melanoma survivor.