An incision on my lower right back, marked by a neat row of straight black stitches, is healing day by day. The doctor’s orders are to take it easy (three words not typically in vocabulary), which means no exercise. So I’m sitting in front of our gas fireplace on a Saturday morning instead of riding the stationary bike, doing my daily stretching, and then making my weekly trip to the Farmer’s Market.
While a part of me can’t help but feel a bit sorry for myself, mostly I’m deeply grateful. This is a story that may be about paying attention, or intuition, or a healthy dose of good plain luck. When walking with a good friend about six weeks ago, she happened to mention a visit to a dermatologist for a full skin scan. As those words came out of her mouth, a voice within me said very distinctly and clearly, “You need to do that.”
As luck would have it, I saw my doctor less than a week later for my annual physical exam. Pointing out a dark spot near my naval (small and very symmetrical, which are good signs, as I understand it), I asked for a referral to a dermatologist. Within a couple of weeks, I went in for the appointment. No, no concern at all about the dark spot, but the resident who was performing the initial examination asked, “Did you know you have a mole on your back?” No, I did not. She went on to say that its appearance concerned her. The doctor agreed and by the time I walked out the door, it had been removed and was on the way to pathology. The spot left behind would feel, I was warned, a bit like a rug bur–a bit annoying but no big deal.
About a week later, the resident called in a surprisingly cheery tone of voice to deliver the news. No sign of melanoma (hear my huge sigh of relief) but the pathologists had found highly unusual cells. So four days ago, I returned for a procedure to remove a larger section of the skin with a much wider margin. As is often the case, the anticipation was much worse than the procedure itself. After a series of small pricks, I felt nothing while the doctor performed the minor surgery other than a pain-free sense of tugging as she sewed in the stitches.
In a few weeks my life will be back to normal and the scar from the incision, while it may never go away entirely, will fade over time. So here I sit imagining what might have happened if this series of events hadn’t led me to this point, a potential health threat now removed. What was it, I ask myself, that pushed over the first domino? What was the voice within that I heard? Intuition? Did I know at some level that this part of my body needed attention? Or was it pure serendipity? Sheer luck?
Recently I’ve finished reading The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. In the book, the authors cover in highly engaging way what they describe as the illusions of daily life. These include the illusion of attention (we notice far less than we think we do and less accurately), the illusion of memory (we would be wise to trust our memories and the memories of other people far less than we do), the illusion of confidence (a show of confidence is often much more about personality than about knowledge or ability) and the illusion of causation (we erroneously tend to ascribe cause to things that happen before or at the same time as something else). I highly recommend this fascinating, eye-opening book.
I’ve always seen myself as a highly intuitive person, although I’ve made the mistake at times of not paying close enough attention. So I can’t help but think that in this situation my intuition served me well with that inner warning. But maybe my biggest lesson learned, which I’m passing on here, is how important it is for us to pay attention to our skin as part of taking care of ourselves.
If I were to place my bet on the best strategy, it would not be to wait for some inner voice. Rather, I suggest getting to know your skin and to ask your doctor to look over your skin carefully (my doctor of twenty plus years, in whom I place the greatest trust, wasn’t doing this, at least not in a deliberate, thorough way). In the end, I do believe luck played a part in my sitting here, feeling grateful to be healing from an incision on my back.
So good luck, my friend, and I hope that if you don’t do it already that you’ll get to know that wondrous and largest of the human organs—your skin. Our health and possibly our lives could depend on it.