My astrological sign is Cancer. My birthday is in mid-July, and this means I’m a water sign. To the point, I love being around water and I love, love, love summer. Ok, maybe not as much as I love fall, but for sure more than I love spring or winter. Now that my seasonal score card is out of the way, I’ll move along to my story.
Summers in Seattle can be magical. The summer months are the months I try NOT to leave Washington because it is just so beautiful here. If you are reading this and you live somewhere else and are considering moving here, I’m lying. It rains all the time. Have you seen how bad our air is right now? Please don’t move here. We are at capacity. Thank you. And if you do live here, then you already know that our summer doesn’t usually start until after the 4th of July.
Each year I pray for sun and get excited to dust off and pull out my pool floatie collection. Yes, you read that right. I have a collection of pool floaties. I was an early adopter to the oversized, colorful pool floatie craze. My collection includes some of the following shapes: a unicorn, a white swan, a gold swan, a watermelon, a rubber duck in sunglasses, an avocado, a popsicle, sunglasses, a huge pair of lips, and a football. One might say that’s a lot of floaties for a single gal who lives alone. I stock up on SPF, beach towels and invite friends and family to drop in anytime the weather is right. You get a floatie! YOU get a floatie! And YOU get a floatie! I’m the Oprah of pool floaties.
Summer birthdays as a kid were a mixed bag. Friends were often out of town on vacation. I was bummed my birthday didn’t fall during the school year so I could take cupcakes to school and get a ton of attention as the “birthday girl.” As a teenager, I had one birthday party that was an all girl’s overnighter, and while the details of what happened are fuzzy now, I do remember everyone leaving to go sleep in another room leaving me to age alone. Pulling the sleeping bag over my head, I cried myself to sleep. Ever since then, birthdays weren’t really a big deal to me. Some years they were, most years they weren’t, and I can recall some really, really bad ones. If there is such a thing as birthday PTSD, then I have it.
This year my birthday fell on a Thursday, a work day. It started off solid. It was sunny. I was living my best life, having a good hair day, and I had a closet full of shoes to choose from. Life was good. Arriving at the office, I was pleasantly surprised to find my desk covered with little gifts and cards. Between the text messages, birthday gifs, emails, and Facebook posts from friends and family, I was feeling the love. You see, I was turning 43 and I have convinced myself this was going to be the best year ever. It was going to be the year of love. Being born in 1975, I’m a child of the 70’s, which means I was a young adult in the 90’s. Like many young adults at that time, I had a pager. Mobile phones were still too new, too expensive, came in a bag or were the size of a brick. Pagers were the way to stay connected to your friends and family. Mine was an ice blue Motorola pager that was transparent so you could see the inside wires. I knew all of the secret codes you could message your friends and 143 meant “I love you.” Since I’m new to being an empty nester (my son is 21 and moved out in March of this year), I now think of myself as a “one” instead of a “two.” One turning 43. This to me equaled 143 and that is how I decided this was going to be the year of love. Magical thinking at its finest, and obviously nothing bad could happen in the year of love.
Life can change in an instant. This is something we all learn over time, and I spend quite a bit of time thinking about life-defining moments that forever changed the course or direction of my life. My most recent life-changing moment happened waiting for an Uber in Pike Place Market after just finishing a delicious lunch with friends and co-workers at the Pink Door restaurant. I’d received a call from my dermatologist that I needed to call them back to get the results of a mole that was removed a few weeks before. Hoping this was just a standard voicemail, I decided to call them back while we were waiting for the Uber to locate us. The next thing I knew, I was being told I had stage one melanoma skin cancer and I was being referred to a surgeon. Wait. What?
In disbelief, I remember mumbling to my friends “I have cancer” and Libby, one my nearest and dearest, was quickly saying “No you don’t, you’re fine.” More assertively I said, “No really. I have cancer. I’m being referred to a surgeon.” Faces fell and the world went silent. Blinking back tears, I took several deep breaths as the wind from the Puget Sound blew gently on my face. We had actually just been talking about this at lunch. I’d had a mole removed a few weeks before and I hadn’t received a call about the results. I was asking the group if that was odd and we unanimously decided no news was good news and changed the subject. Initially I didn’t go to the dermatologist about the mole but for another reason. So removing the mole, to me, had felt very secondary and not really that urgent. Although it was a newish mole, I wasn’t concerned about it for a few reasons. I’m a pretty mole-y gal and I’ve had several moles removed over the years and it’s always been just fine. It was also dark, a perfect circle, about the size of a dime, and I believed that bad moles must be weird shaped and strangely colored. My cousin Ariel had actually commented on the mole in mid-June while we were waiting for “Stranger Things” the Laser Light Show to start at the Pacific Science Center. “Is that new? You should get it checked,” she said. Secretly, I had been wanting to have the mole removed for months but for reasons of pure vanity. It was very close to an ankle tattoo that I have, and I felt it was throwing off the design. If the mole had come before the tattoo, I would never have gotten that tattoo in that location on my ankle.
Once back at the office, I locked myself in a conference room and started making phone calls. First to the surgeon to ensure I could get the soonest available appointment. Then I called my mom. Naturally, she started asking lots of questions and all I could say was “I don’t know. I don’t know.” My mind was already mush as I started down the Google rabbit hole. I quickly established there are five stages to melanoma skin cancer, zero thru four. Why wasn’t I a zero? I want to be a zero. I want to start at zero, not start at one. Being an overachiever is really inconvenient sometimes. Quickly, I had established I did not want to be a stage three or four, which made my stage one feel less dangerous. I started googling lymphoma and getting an understanding of how fast and aggressive melanoma skin cancer can spread. Reading the list of symptoms that would be associated with it spreading, it felt like I had them all. Chronic cough, fatigue, headaches, blurry vision were at the top of my symptom list plus a low grade pain in my left leg that I’d been having, for no apparent reason, for several months. Then I did the unthinkable. I clicked Google images melanoma skin cancer. Don’t. Ever. Do. This. By the time the work day was done, I was contemplating starting plans for my funeral or shopping for wigs online. Flare for the dramatic much? Yes. Absolutely. But remember, birthday PTSD was in full force and I was once again ready to pull the sleeping bag over my head in a room alone and cry myself to sleep.
Time moved very slowly over the next two weeks as I went to doctor appointments and made plans to take a leave of absence from work. Emotionally, I was a roller coaster of feelings. I felt anger and feelings of rage that the consequences of my teenage years and my 20’s were still affecting my present day me. I had been a sun worshipper for as long as I could remember. Tanning beds? Loved them. Sunscreen? Seemed optional until my 30’s. I burned easily and frequently until I built up a really good base, which then had to be maintained year round by the tanning beds. By my mid-30’s I decided to give up tanning because I didn’t really have the time and I didn’t want the wrinkles. Besides, I could save all the money from tanning for the botox I would need to fix the lines I’d already developed. There were feelings of sadness and imminent doom. Friends would tell me “It’s going to be fine,” and I’d just stare at them thinking to myself, “I don’t think you’d feel that way if you knew you had cancer in your body.”
This isn’t my first rodeo with life-threatening issues. I am a survivor. In fact, I often tell people the theme song to my life is from the album Tubthumping “I get knocked down” by Chumbawamba. I’ve been knocked down many, many times in the last 43 years and I’ve always gotten back up. (Cue song… “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you are never going to keep me down….”) My burning question for God: “Do I seriously have to survive EVERYTHING?” (shaking fist into the air) Depending on how well you know me, if you know me at all, you might be starting to think I’m a cat with my nine lives. (Also, if you do know me, then you know I’m really a dog person and it pained me to use the cat analogy to make my point.) Speaking of dogs, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to walk or be very mobile for several weeks post-surgery. With this advanced knowledge, I went on as many walks as I could with my dog Bella, a chubby Boston Terrier that is often referred to by toddlers as a baby cow. We spent hours roaming around Luther Burbank Park, sitting on the edge of the lake watching the birds, the boats, or the sunset. I’ve found the perfect secret spot to sit along the shore, cozied up to a log that serves as my front row throne to the beauty of the area. There are trails all over Mercer Island, where I live, and we spent quality time exploring and trekking trails we knew and even found some new ones.
The weekend before my surgery, I went to a dinner party at Tango (delicious BTW, highly recommend) that was followed by a backstage VIP experience for Candlebox at the Paramount Theatre. It just so happened I ended up seated across the table from a local surgeon who specialized in cancer at Virginia Mason. While I didn’t want to be the gal who brings the party down with my news, I also wasn’t going to pass up on the opportunity for more information. “Give it to me straight, Doc! How worried do I need to be?” This lovely gentleman went on to explain, very matter of fact, that melanoma is the toughest and most aggressive of skin cancers. That said, treatment has also come a long way. In less than ten minutes, this man took away my wheelbarrow full of fears and helped me get in touch with the strength deep within so I could do this. The way he explained it gave me hope because I know how tough I am or at least how tough I can be when needed. I can’t really explain it properly. Pre-dinner party: Alysse is dying. Post-dinner party, pre-Candlebox concert: Alysse is going to conquer this. Somehow he flipped my super power switch on, and I believed I was strong enough to fight for however long the battle was going to last.
Surgery was set for Tuesday, July 31st at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, just one of the local hospitals with which I’ve become very familiar. My son has Crohn’s disease and had a major surgery that resulted in a week long stay a Overlake in November of 2015. I’ve also visited this hospital when I tripped at a gasoline station (wearing Birkenstocks, post yoga, pre-pedicure) and fell backwards, cracking my head on the cement pole that is there to keep cars from hitting the gas tanks. My short term memory has never been the same. I hardly ever wear those Birkenstocks anymore. This meant I was already very familiar with the hospital parking garages, their Starbucks, their gift shop, and the hallway lined with aquariums. (Side note, if Nemo is there, I’ve never found him.) My mom was with me as we checked in at my call time of 5 am. The first procedure would be lymph-node mapping to establish which lymph-node the cancer most likely would have spread to, if in fact, it had spread at all. Due to the size and depth of what the mole had been, it had already been established they would be removing at least one lymph-node to test. If it came back positive, I would immediately be moved to stage three cancer. (WTF happened to stage 2?) I’d taken two anti-anxiety pills and it was very early (for me) with no coffee (or any liquids of any kind) and I’m pretty sure I slept through most of this procedure. Honestly, I can sleep through anything and I can sleep almost anywhere. Fun fact, I’ve fallen asleep in movie theaters with my son and his friends and even on dates! (How am I still single?) This part wasn’t so bad when I kept my eyes closed.
Next up with the actual surgery. It was explained to me that they would be removing a lymph-node from my upper thigh/groin area. From that same area they would take a bunch of my skin to skin graph down below on my ankle. Secretly, I was wishing they would take more from that area than they did. Can a girl get a buy one get one in healthcare procedures? The plan was to take as much around the missing mole hole down on my inside ankle as possible. The position on my ankle was not ideal and made it a very precarious surgery. Dressed in the sterile, disposable hospital get-up, I remember having my mom pray over me as a fought back the tears. “You can do this Bryson. Keep it together now,” I thought. Then, I remember the blur of the ceiling as they rolled me on my bed to the surgery room. Upon entering, it was very bright, very sterile, and very turquoise. I looked around at the nurses and all of the instruments. I was greeted by my surgeon, Dr. Helen Kim, with whom at this point I felt very comfortable. She used the word meticulous at least two times during my first appointment, and I knew she was the right surgeon for me. Then came the panic and the tears. Almost three years prior, separated by only a few weeks, I was being rolled into an operating room at Swedish for emergency heart surgery, unclear of what the outcome would be. How am I here again? Why is this happening? And where are the drugs?
As a recovered alcoholic for over 12 years, the idea of a “free” high is always very exciting. FREEBIE! YES! This is a welcome distraction to the fear I’m feeling. “Give me everything you’ve got!” Which, when I pause to wonder if I’m still an alcoholic after all these years, after being so excited about my pre-surgery high, it reminds me that yes, my mind still works differently than others in regards to substance abuse. No need to wonder. Snap out of it, sister.
Once the gas mask went on, I quickly was out for the entire surgery. Four plus hours later, I came to. My throat felt like sandpaper due to the tube I had down it. I was so groggy. News was shared that the surgery went well and the results would be back in a few days. A FEW DAYS?!?!?! More waiting. Instructions on how to take care of my bandaged leg for the next week included sponge baths, lots of rest, and no walking. Happy to not be spending the night in the hospital, my mom drove me home and put me to bed. My dad was also on the scene to walk my dog and wipe my tears. The pain was pure agony. Having my parents there made it a little bit better. The older I get, the more I get to intimately know my parents as people and as friends. They are two of the most loving, generous, big hearted people I know. Always there for me and always putting their family first.
A week later, I was at my follow up appointment. It was the first time my bandage would be removed and I would see my leg. Nothing could have really prepared me for this moment. The doctor explained it would look really severe and that I should remain calm. That six months from now it wouldn’t look like that and to take deep breaths. It was worse than I could have imagined. May I repeat, DO NOT GOOGLE IMAGE melanoma skin cancer. It looked as if someone had taken an ice cream scoop that had shark teeth to my ankle and scooped out a Baskin Robbins size scoop of vanilla Alysse. The view from every angle was jarring and the Frankenstein black stitches didn’t help. I was looking at the inside of my leg. Gone was the dime sized hole where the mole used to be and in it’s place was a crater double (maybe even triple) the size of a fifty cent piece. Any dreams of being a leg model were smashed. A bit of relief did run through me when I realized my ankle tattoo was untouched and still in place. Oh the irony that the month before I didn’t like how the mole looked next to the semicolon tattoo. That was absolutely nothing compared to the tattoo placement near the new crater in my leg. (I’ll spare you the photo of this, but if you really want to see it, send me a message.)
After receiving all of the instructions for how to care and dress the wound each day, I feebly asked if my results were back. I desperately needed to know where I stood in my battle with cancer. Was it gone? Would I live? A smile crawled slowly across Dr. Kim’s face as she gave us the positive news that yes in fact, I was cancer free. It had not spread to my lymph-nodes. And while I was in fact missing a huge chunk out of my leg, the surgery had been successful. They had gotten it all. The relief I felt was exhilarating as I wheeled out of the doctor’s office on my knee scooter that I was able to borrow from someone from the Buy Nothing Mercer Island Facebook group page.
Recovery has been slow, painful, and draining. Who knew I used my ankle so much? The other incision in my upper left thigh was healing nicely. The nerve damage has been undeniably constant and miserable from areas that weren’t even cut open, which includes the top of my foot and up and down my leg shooting a piercing ache with each step. When I went back for the second post-surgery check-up, I was told I was making impressive progress and that the stitches could be removed. See ya Frankenstein thread! Having the stitches removed made my leg look less like a sea urchin or that creature from Stranger Things. Sadly, once back home my progress took a turn for the worse. As my mom and I stepped into the elevator of my condo building, I felt a SNAP and screamed out in pain. As I looked down, I saw that the bandage was blood soaked and leaking into my black and white Hunter flip flops. Because of my heart condition, I’m on blood thinners. I went off of them a week leading up to surgery and was told post-surgery it would be fine to get back on them. You know that one episode in Game of Thrones called the Red Wedding? Ok, it wasn’t THAT bad but it felt like it. Back to the doctors office we went. Apparently I was not, in fact, ready for the stitches to be removed after all, despite the outward appearance of progress. There was no gas mask this time around to put me to sleep for this round of stitches. More pain. More tears. Please, God, make it stop.
After three weeks of binge watching Netflix documentaries, stand-up comedy specials, Amazon Prime movies and shows, I was ready to return to work. (Want to know what I watched? Message me for recommendations.) Sleep had become my full time job. I was clocking anywhere from 12-16 hours a day, passed out on my bed with my leg propped up with pillows in front of my air conditioner. I’d also started a new craft project that is likely going to take me over a year to finish and warrants its own blog post. (Hint: I’m bedazzling a mural-sized photo of my dogs with tiny crystals, and it’s a hilarious story and classic example of me, well, being me.)
Suffice to say, the summer of 2018 did not go as expected. While I am thrilled beyond words to be cancer free, there is still a mourning process happening as my leg heals. It will never be the same. I will always look down at it and remember this summer. People are going to ask questions, and I want to have a good story. All scars do. Here is what I am choosing to remember about this birthday and this season.
As it turns out, I was right! 43 is going to be my year of love. I have felt more love and support in the last three weeks than I ever remember feeling in my life. I work for a company that has been incredibly supportive. The KING 5 Sales team all chipped in and sent me an Uber Eats gift card to make my life a little easier. King 5 Senior Management said take your time, turn off your email, take care of you. My cousin Emma (I have a lot of cousins) stayed with me the first week and not only kept me company, but also kept my house running too. The outpouring from family and friends via text, phone calls, and in-person visits has been overwhelming and I will forever be so grateful. My friend Carol even came over and washed my hair when I called her, begging to take me to get a blow out that first week when I could only sponge bathe. I received little packages in the mail to keep me entertained that included Muppets Mad Libs, the 52 Lists for Happiness book, a book of 300 Writing Prompts (which prompted me to write out my story), coloring books and new pencils, including the Victoria Beckham Coloring book, and so much more. Flowers kept showing up, along with deliveries of dinners, smoothies, and stacks of People magazines (which I secretly love but never want to spend money on.) I did not lack for reading material in any way as stacks of amazing books have now landed on my coffee table that I can’t wait to read every page.
Special recognition must go to my parents, Gerry and Rachelle Bryson. When I think of the hell I put them through during my teenage years and my 20’s, I honestly don’t know why they even take my calls. But they do, because they love me. Unconditional love and the willingness to put faith in God’s hands is perhaps the greatest of the gifts I have received from them.
When I look down at my new scars, they will remind me of the pain and suffering I’ve been through. They will also remind me to wear the strongest SPF I can find all over my body, year round, at all times, to get regular skin check ups, and to be thoughtful of my time in the sun. My inside scars of the last 43 years can’t be seen to the human eye, and they don’t immediately show people that I have struggled to survive. These new outside scars will show my fierce determination to survive and my ability to heal from the events of my past. Being happy doesn’t mean everything is going to be perfect; it just means I’m choosing to look beyond the imperfections.
For more information on Melanoma Skin Cancer, the signs, and when to be checked out, go to the American Cancer Society website.
Wishing you a year ahead filled with 143 and healthy skin!