Timna Understein

Subject Photo
Timna Understein
Stage I
Age Group

I have been asked by many people about my story as it relates to melanoma, a disease that has changed me from the moment I got the call with my first diagnosis.  Here it is, in brief, with pictures to help…

Baby  I was born a baby with fair skin.

 I grew up with hippie parents in the late 60s and early 70s.  We lived in New Mexico and California, spending a LOT of time outside, dressed    in minimal clothingHippie

 I spent my time with my mom in Pacific Palisades, my dad in Venice, and my grandmother (Nonnie) in Marina  Del Ray…on the beach.


NoSunscreen Sunscreen was not a thing then…at least that I knew of.  It was all about just being outside, in nature.


 (I know, weird that hippies let their kids play with toy guns…but they did)

  Fast forward (but NOT to forget the 20+ years of sun loving, laying out, skin burning, beach going, roof-top pool visiting, and much more)…



At 38, I was sitting on my bed, studying the bottom of my right foot.  Yes, I can see the bottom of my feet. Maybe it’s the yoga, but really I think it’s just my body…because below you will see me, at age 4, eating my foot…..

foot  So, yeah…I was inspecting my right foot and saw a TINY black speck.  I actually thought it was a baby tick, and with     my fabulous surgical skills, I proceeded to remove the “tick” with a cuticle clipper…GROSS, I know.  It was done.  The  "tick” was out and life went on….until a few weeks later while catching another good look at my foot, I noticed this    black speck was back.  Somewhere in the back of my head I remembered hearing the words, “If you have a freckle on the bottom of your foot,  it is not a good thing.”  And I knew I needed to get to my dermatologist asap.I got in as soon as I could, to see a PA, who removed the dot and  told me to have a good weekend.

 Over a week later, a nurse called me.  She starts talking to me….about melanoma…my oncologist (I DON’T HAVE AN ONCOLOGIST)…my  appointment for blood work and chest x-rays at UNC…surgery…cancer center.  I left my body at those words.  And when I came back, I told the nurse she needed to stop talking because I was not hearing her, and that I needed to get a pen and paper to write all of this down.  This is not real!  It’s JUST SKIN!  Why x-rays and surgery and new doctors, etc??????????  I mean, it is just about skin, right?

It was then I quickly became an expert on all things melanoma.  I knew that when my oncologist LOUDLY stated to me, “THIS IS SERIOUS!” that my life was changing fast and forever.

Fast forward (but NOT to forget the dermatology visits every 3 months with multiple biopsies, most of which coming back severely atypical and needing further excision, the anxiety, fear, post traumatic stress, obsession with checking my moles all day long, 3 months for the hole in my foot to close after the wide excision, and the incision in my groin to heal after the lymph node biopsy, and more fear, and more terror, and, and, and……….oh, and practicing safe sun in all ways).

Arm Three years later (no, I didn’t reach the 5 year mark. So bummed!) I have my second melanoma.  This one is on my right forearm, found at one  of my regularly scheduled dermatology visits.  Back to fear, back to crazy, back to wide excisions.

 And then, a few months ago, I started seeing flashes of light in my left eye.  So, I decide to study the sh*t out of my eye ball, something I had  never done in the past (surprising!).  And sure enough, I see THE TINIEST dark fleck on the white on my eye…and I sink into melanoma fear,  knowing that tomorrow I will be in my eye doctor’s office no matter how booked and busy she is.  

 My eye doctor tells me that what I had found were just a few pigmented cells.  Well, after you have had melanoma, the words PIGMENTEDEye   CELLS don’t jive well…no matter how few there are.  She tells me it’s nothing, but that if I want to see an eye  tumor specialist because I’m so “anxious”, she would make the call.  OF COURSE I WANT HER TO MAKE THE  CALL!!!!!!

  After weeks of waiting to get in with this eye tumor guy, and after a FIVE (yes, FIVE) hour appointment of dilation,  pictures, exams, different residents….I finally get to see THE specialist, who tells me this: “The reason you came in here today is actually fine, but right next to it is something called Primary Acquired Melanosis, and because of your history with melanoma, we are not going to wait and watch, we need to biopsy it and freeze around the area.”

Um……with shock having taken over, I blurted out, “ARE YOU ##%%! KIDDING ME?”  The thought of my eye ball being cut and frozen and…………………..It’s all just too much. I break.  I break down….right there, with this nice eye tumor specialist and his nurse, I just sob.

So, this is how it goes…once you have melanoma.  It’s a LIFE LONG deal.  It’s never over.

And so it is with these experiences, and this new life, that I hope to raise awareness and help to educate others about what might just be something they can hear about rather than experience it firsthand.