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Melanoma a Reality Check for Young Survivor

Article date: July 6, 2011

Mary Shouvlin

"What am I doing with the life that I have been given? How can I be a positive effect on the people in my life?"

 

Mary Shouvlin had a bad feeling about the mole on her left forearm. It was a little discolored and had started to change a bit, though still looked nothing like the pictures she’d seen of skin cancer in magazines.

She had plenty of time to think about it last August, during the week and a half she spent driving from her hometown in Trumbull, Connecticut, to Oregon to volunteer with AmeriCorps for a year. She had just graduated from Fordham University in New York City and was excited about this first new adventure of her adult life. She was 21.

Mary spent her first couple of months in Oregon settling into her new place and learning about her new position volunteering for an organization that encourages young people to be a positive change in their communities. She and her boyfriend, Mike, explored the Pacific Northwest as much as they could. And she made it a point to go to the dermatologist to have that mole removed.

Diagnosis a Shock

Three weeks later, Mary learned in a telephone call with a nurse that she had malignant melanoma, a type of skin cancer that spreads very quickly. She needed to have surgery right away.

She says, “I remember what I was wearing, I remember where I sat down in the grass, I remember the brick that I felt in my stomach and I remember feeling like I had absolutely no idea what had just happened or what it meant.”

Mary had always considered herself a healthy person. She had trained throughout the previous winter to run a half-marathon in the spring. She does yoga regularly, gets plenty of sleep, drinks lots of water and tries to eat well-balanced meals and organic foods.

“Yet being a very pale Irish girl growing up in a predominantly Italian town, I was definitely sucked into wanting to have a little color,” she says. “I admit to not being incredibly wise or as cautious as I should be when it came to lying out in the sun in order to get even my weak Irish excuse of a tan.”

When she got off the phone with the nurse, Mary called her parents. With their help, she immediately took a red-eye flight back to the east coast, and scheduled an exam with a doctor, who took x-rays, did extensive blood work, and ordered her slides from the lab in Oregon. He confirmed that her melanoma was in stage 1. It had not yet spread to other parts of her body. She had surgery at Yale New Haven Hospital to remove some of the healthy skin tissue surrounding the spot where the malignant mole had been removed. This is standard treatment for melanoma, to make sure that no cancer cells are left behind and to help keep it from returning.

Grateful for Life

Today, Mary is back in Oregon, finishing up her year with AmeriCorps. She has a 7 or 8-inch scar on her left forearm. She says, “It is an interesting conversation piece, because it is so visible. I have found that there is a funny scar community that exists. People see my scar, and randomly feel inclined to show me their own scar. It’s a funny thing, and it happens more often than you would think.”

She goes to the dermatologist every 3 months for skin checks, and she does careful self-checks a lot. And she’s diligent about using sunscreen whenever she goes outdoors.

Mary says she’s grateful that her cancer was caught early, before it spread. And she says the experience has given her perspective about life, how fragile it is and how important it is to educate yourself and protect yourself and your health. And it’s made her more thoughtful and contemplative: “What am I doing with the life that I have been given? How can I be a positive effect on the people in my life?” She says she tries to be in the moment right now that is important, and to be consciously grateful for everything.