I sit naked under a thin paper gown, my legs hanging over the end of the examining table. It is the day of my annual skin cancer check and I am waiting for my dermatologist. It has been six years since my melanoma diagnosis. I’m at the cautiously optimistic stage — what the nurse describes as a “graduate” when she confirms that I’m no longer required to show up for twice-a-year whole-body-checks.
A spot on my right leg is bothering me. It is unevenly shaped and the center is lighter than the outer edges. It reminds me of the one I finally paid attention to six years ago — the one on my right shoulder, where I now bear a half-inch scar. The one that nagged at me, forcing my gaze to its location, until I finally made an appointment to see my doctor. She agreed that it looked suspicious and immediately did a biopsy. I knew it wasn’t good when she personally called me at home the next day.
Today, as I sit waiting, I know my doctor thinks I’m needlessly worrying. But she’s honored my request to cut off this unusual mole and send it to the lab. “Better safe than sorry,” she told me.
The area is itchy and raised from the topical anesthetic. A circle has been drawn around the mole, which will soon be gone, no longer able to taunt me.
I remember to take a few yoga breaths — the deep, soothing ujjayi breaths that instructors always describe as “oceanic.” I started taking yoga classes eight years ago in an attempt to manage the crushing and competing pressures of running a business and raising a family. When I first learned this breathing technique, it immediately felt familiar. Lips softly pressed closed. Tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth. The breaths must almost fight the false obstruction but the effort forces the body to relax, to concentrate on that simply movement. Air in, air out. Slowly. Audibly. Like the waves of the ocean pushing purposefully toward the shore, then easing back to the depths.
The first time I felt myself breathe like this I had a regulator in my mouth. Then a student at the University of Guam, I had signed up for a scuba diving class with Jack Sigrah, a Palauan friend I met at school. (As the only blond non-Micronesian student in the dorms, I had no difficulty attracting curiosity, attention and eventually some wonderful friendships.)
I will never forget the first time I went underwater with an air tank on my back. It was at once frightening, exhiliarating and strangely calming. When your field of vision is limited by the mask on your face and your very life depends on good equipment, you quickly focus on living in the moment. Everything else drifts away. You may be diving with a team or just one buddy, but you are completely alone and at peace with the universe. Your body is weightless, free, rocking with the gentle drifts of the underlying tide. All you see is a kaleidoscopic display of colors and motion . All you hear is your own breathing.
When our diving instructors wrote a story about safe scuba diving for the Pacific Daily News, they asked Jack and me to pose for pictures. “Safe diving saves lives,” the headline read. As I sit on this medical boat on a sea of uncertainty, I hope regular check-ups do, too.