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A gut feeling convinced this mom-to-be to see her doctor for a skin check—leading to a frightening cancer diagnosis that posed a serious threat to her and her unborn child.

Sarah Flynn, as told to Dwyer Frame
May 29, 2017

Last September, my husband and I found out that I was pregnant with our first child. We’d been trying for several months, so this was very welcome news. We soon learned that I was carrying a boy and thought all was well.

But around the time I conceived, I started noticing a mole on my left foot. I knew the mole had been there during my last skin check, which happened a few months earlier in June. At that time, I was more concerned about a spot on my leg—which my dermatologist said was a precancerous growth and didn’t need to come off right away. Since I’m fair-skinned, I try to get a yearly skin check to catch things early.

RELATED: Is It a Mole . . . or Skin Cancer?

This mole, however, began to change a lot as my pregnancy progressed. At one point it got really dry, the top layer peeled off, and then the center darkened and felt like a grain of sand was inside it. I kept putting off making an appointment to get it checked out, but finally the following April, in my 30th week of pregnancy, I went to see my dermatologist.

A terrifying diagnosis

In my derm’s office I said, “I know I need to get this other thing off my leg, but I want you to check this mole in the meantime.” She replied, “Hmm, that doesn’t look good,” and removed it. Two days later, she called me with test results. The mole was a stage 1B melanoma, not in situ (meaning it was deep).

I was shocked. I didn’t know a lot about melanoma, so I did not instantly grasp what the diagnosis meant. But as I learned more about it and found out that what remained of the cancerous mole deep in my skin had to be removed during surgery, I became very, very upset about what this could mean for my baby.

 

Surgery was scheduled for two weeks later. Usually surgery happens within a few days, yet being pregnant complicated that. My doctors didn’t want to wait eight or so weeks when the baby was due, since that could give the cancer time to spread. But postponing it for two weeks would give his lungs a chance to develop more—so he had a better chance of survival in case he needed to be delivered prematurely, should something go wrong during my surgery.

I didn’t think about my own health; my fear was completely for my baby. I worried that the melanoma would spread and he would be exposed to it. And I was panicked about the radioactive dye I was to be injected with during surgery via a procedure called a sentinel lymph node biopsy. The dye would allow the doctors to see if the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, which could change the course of my treatment.

RELATED: What Pregnancy Does to Your Health

Pregnant and in surgery

At 33 weeks, I went into the surgical suite. There were 20 doctors in there with an incubator set up next to me, in case the baby was in distress and needed to be delivered. They placed the baby’s heart monitor beside me so I could hear him, which calmed me down. Thankfully they did not need to put me under general anesthesia; they gave me an epidural. It took 90 minutes, but they removed the cancer (which was three times the size of the mole) as well as the nearest lymph node.

I went home later that day with prescription painkillers, but I only took Tylenol because I was so worried about the baby's health. It was really hard to sleep and I couldn’t walk, but the doctors were concerned about my developing blood clots, so I hobbled around as much as I could. Four days later, I received terrific news. The lymph node had no signs of melanoma, and they had successfully removed everything from my foot.

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A warning for other expectant moms

I'm not out of the woods just yet. Once I have the baby—he’s due in June—doctors will examine my placenta for signs of melanoma, so they'll know if my son could have been exposed to cancer. Then, two weeks postpartum, I’ll go in for a full-body picture so my dermatological oncologist can reference my moles every three months for the next five years, and then every six months for the rest of my life.

I didn’t know much about melanoma before this ordeal, and I never thought I was at risk. I have no family history, and I’ve always been careful in the sun since I was young. But now I know it can strike almost anyone, and despite a recent study that showed pregnant women have lower odds of developing melanoma, any expectant mother should not put off going to her dermatologist if she gets a hunch that a mole or mark looks suspicious.

My advice is this: you might be very pregnant, tired, and busy—but you can spare time for a checkup.