Mapping a calmer passage through cancer

“Soon after the surgery I learned that my melanoma had not spread. I could let go of my fear. I had arrived safely.”

Michelle Hiskey, patient

I first met Winship oncologist Dr. Keith Delman nine years ago, after my best friend insisted that the persistent small spot on my face should be checked. Turns out it was melanoma, and I was scared.

Anxiety was not like me. I was a deadline journalist, focused under pressure. I grew up playing competitive golf, performing in an unforgiving spotlight. Cancer didn't run in my family, and I had imagined a long life with my children. But I couldn't visualize what was going to happen to me, and the more I tried, the more anxious I became.

Dr. Delman's necklace pendant.
In the mirror, the cancerous spot on my left cheek looked like a pink pencil eraser. But a lot more than the spot would need to go. Dr. Delman planned to remove a chunk of tissue the size of a golf ball. A golf ball! My diagnosis felt like a bad debt from all those hours in the sunshine playing golf before sunscreen was common.

As my surgery approached, I looked for anything tangible that would give me strength and comfort. I had noticed the necklace that Dr. Delman wore, a small green circle containing a beautiful map of water and land, and I asked him what it signified. He told me it was a navigational map, a memento of his time as a ferry boat captain in the Great South Bay around Long Island, New York. Taking vacationers back and forth across the shoals was how he paid for medical school at nearby Stony Brook University.

In the Great South Bay, the depth of the water changes all the time, sometimes dangerously, and the weather can be hazardous. Dr. Delman knew what was under that water and how to maneuver in every condition. His passengers always arrived safely. This reassured me.

“Knowledge is power, and understanding is critical.”

Keith Delman, Specialist in minimally invasive surgery for melanoma

Soon after the surgery I learned that my melanoma had not spread. I could let go of my fear. I had arrived safely. Almost a decade later, I remain cancer-free. As Dr. Delman predicted, the 60 stitches on my cheek have faded into my smile lines. Look closely, and you'll see that my scar is shaped like a question mark, apt for a journalist.

Michelle Hiskey on pedestrian bridge at Emory University Hospital.

Michelle Hiskey today supports Winship Cancer Institute as a grateful patient and as a project manager with Emory Advancement Communications, a creative team that serves donors across the university.

Recently, as I reconnected with Dr. Delman while preparing to write this story, I asked him for any advice that would help anxious cancer patients. He said that a cancer diagnosis doesn't need to send patients reeling. Instead, the diagnosis should be part of a bigger story of possibilities.

"A cancer diagnosis is someone's worst day ever. That said, we've done a really bad job putting cancer into context," he said. "Many cancers are curable, like yours was. In contrast, high blood pressure is incurable, yet no one cries when they get that diagnosis. Knowledge is power, and understanding is critical."

Cancer tested my ability to trust. My scar reminds me of that, and the rough waters that I could not cross without expert navigation.

"Get a great team and put the worrying in their hands," Dr. Delman added. "Make plans in the same way that you wear a seatbelt: You're prepared for an accident, but you don't worry about it every minute of every drive."

I see what he means. If you're anxious about your diagnosis, I hope you can see it too.

View Michelle's digital story, "Necklace Man."

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