Tumor Humor

The Melanoma Research Alliance's new spokesperson credits a vain indulgence with saving her life.
By Craig Gustafson

Jill Kargman is a survivor. For years the best-selling author has made hay out of surviving (and celebrating) life in New York, where the wealthy jetsetters’ too-strange-to-be-fiction take on daily life provides rich fodder for her chick-lit novels. Wielded by women with too much time and money on their hands, the tenets of living a natural, healthy lifestyle were just another opportunity to lambast these over-competitive upper-east-side “Momzillas” for being self-righteous about their one-upmanship.
    
Approaching 35 years old and with three small children, the idea of surviving took on new meaning for Kargman when she learned that she had stage II melanoma.
    
It is not as if she had completely neglected the health of her skin. Kargman says she was not a “bikini-clad sun worshiper”; she visited a dermatologist regularly and had numerous moles removed and biopsied. In fact, her regular dermatologist—one of New York’s most accomplished—examined this particular spot at least twice, dismissing it each time as benign (even after she revealed that it bled occasionally).
    
Looking for a non-surgical intervention to erase the visual effects of aging on her face, she gave in to a moment of vanity that saved her life. She queried her doctor about Botox, but he did not approve of the procedure. A friend referred her to another doctor with no such aversion. The procedure was quick and relatively pain-free (compared to her tattoo), but the strange, skin-colored mark on her skin still bothered her with its intermittent bleeding. Impulsively, she asked the new doctor for a second opinion. The conclusion was virtually the same. It appeared to be benign but, because of the bleeding, removal was recommended.
    
In her book, Sometimes I Feel Like a Nut (a collection of nonfiction essays published by William Morrow that showcases her edgy, irreverent brand of humor and an honest, blunt wit that would certainly be labelled as “crude” or “unrefined” by the Momzilla-class she lampoons), Kargman relates what happened next: “A week later, in a deluge of biblical proportions, I was pushing Fletch in the stroller while holding a massive umbrella when my cell phone rang. It was my doctor with the pathology report. Not the nurse, the doctor, herself. Uh-oh.”
    
At an age where relatively few women are forced to confront their mortality, Kargman found herself wondering if she would live to see her 40th birthday and how the end result of her struggle would affect the lives of her three small children. “I had the rarest form of skin cancer,” Karman told Natural Solutions, “and of all the people who have had it, 0.01 percent were 35 and under. I was one in a million and I had to get to Sloan Kettering [hospital] fast.”
    
The nature of the condition required fast and invasive action. A quickly scheduled surgery to remove the tumor and the nearby lymph nodes from her inner thigh, close to her groin, left a nine-inch scar. Post-surgery, Kargman has embraced several integrative modalities to advance her healing and prevent future health issues.
    
“Living with this very sudden and unexpected experience jolted me into action with regard to my health, which I always took for granted,” she says. “It’s not that I thought I was invincible or anything—I just didn’t think I would have to face something like this with three small children! When I asked my surgeon’s associate what would have happened if they never removed that amelonomic mole, he replied, ‘You would have been dead within three years.’”
    
The surgery left her with some nerve damage, “I still can’t feel much of my thigh,” she says, “So I went to Sloan Kettering’s Wellness Center for acupuncture and I still get massage, but the nerves won’t grow back for six to seven years.
    
“I don’t have a clue what the culprit was—certainly not the sun, as it’s by my groin (Bob Marley died of Melanoma on the bottom of his foot) and common sense told me it was time to cut out chemicals. I said bye-bye to my daily can of Sprite, bid adieu to excessive caffeine, and bought all organic for our home.
    
“I really think about natural skincare. I now use Tata Harper, which is all made on a farm in Vermont with entirely natural products. I use organic shampoos and soaps, and stopped using toxic nail polish,” she says. “I still stay out of the sun to be safe and I take vitamins every day, like vitamin D.”
    
Although her initial reaction to the diagnosis took an understandably strong turn toward what Kargma describes in her book as “panic,” the long view of her situation found her returning to her best mechanism for coping with stress—humor. In fact, current developments in mind-body medicine support the idea of laughter for both wellness and healing.
   
 “My book really discusses how you can use humor as a weapon to combat those bumps in the road and de-stress!” says Kargman. “My dad did stand-up comedy (and I’m doing some these days in NYC as well!) and, honestly, clichés exist for a reason: laughter is the best medicine. If I didn’t laugh, I would have bawled, so I started by cracking jokes in the OR right away (“Will I be Sinèad O’Kargman?”), and even took pictures of my scar with funny post-its next to it and emailed them to my friends who didn’t know whether to giggle or cry.”
    
During recovery Kargman was confined to a wheelchair, then graduated to a cane. “The jokes disarmed people and made them relax instead of looking at me with worry. And all the openness made me more chill and calm. Going forward, I still have to go to Memorial Sloan Lettering Cancer Center for tests and get total “scanxiety” and freak until my results of clear CTs or chest X-rays [are confirmed] (melanoma cells like mine like to travel to the lungs).
    
Although this particular interview was fairly sober in tone, Kargman did allow the acerbic wit she harnessed for her book to surface for a moment as she concluded: “But being upbeat makes a huge difference…as does pot. To which she quickly added “Just kidding.”