The Upside of Failure: Had I Written a Bestseller, I’d Probably be Dead

Jeff Bergen

Growing up in Southern California during the ‘70s fit my adventurous nature perfectly. Whether I was tearing around the neighborhood on roller skates wearing a tube top and cut-off jeans, or hauling ass by bike down serpentine trails through orange groves, I was rarely found indoors. Summers were spent seeing how dark I could turn my pasty-white body and man, was I good at it. In my pubescent mind, a tawny hue gave the illusion of thinness and also camouflaged splotchy-red zits, which were plentiful. It seemed my official job (when I wasn’t attending high school or crushing on boys) was lying in the prone position at my best friend’s pool or permanently affixed to a low-folding chaise at the beach, slathered in oil. As the ‘80s approached, nary had an un-baked day passed me by.

How tanned was I? Anyone familiar with that era surely remembers the ads for Bain de Soleil. As an impressionable sixteen-year-old, a T.V. commercial with a catchy song and a pretty model sold me on the dream that life would be better with a “St. Tropez tan.” If I only knew then my dedication to achieve skin the color of night would come at a deadly price.

Fast-forward thirty-five years (and tons of outdoor abuse) later to September 2010, the day I suddenly noticed a strange rose-colored mole on my upper left shoulder whilst lounging poolside at my parents’ Palm Springs, CA home. Though somewhat alarming, I wrote it off as one of those things a woman approaching 50 endures as an ugly age spot with character. Besides, I didn’t have time to worry. I was drafting a book proposal for a prominent New York literary agent I’d met at a writer’s conference in Mississippi who’d expressed interest in my book idea and couldn’t be bothered with such distractions. I was beyond obsessed with getting back to that agent as soon as possible with said masterpiece. This dude’s clients were bestselling authors with movie deals so I wrote with the same gusto I had for worshipping the sun – all or nothing. There was just one problem. I hadn’t even begun to write the book yet. I struggled to complete the entire concept in only a few weeks while the bump on my arm grew to the size of a pencil’s eraser. It rapidly changed from pastel-pink to chocolate-brown color and had raised itself to the point where I covered it with a Band-Aid because it hurt if anything brushed up against it.

By late November, I continued to pound away, inventing ludicrous chapter outlines that veered away from the plot, at the speed of light. Little did I realize with each passing day, what lay beneath that bandage was actually killing me.

After a month of non-stop toiling, I e-mailed the agent my 60-page proposal and within a few hours he sent back a short reply praising the work as “solid and well-written”, but that unfortunately it had no payoff – meaning, there wasn’t an ending. Sadly, I already knew this, but wanted to smack myself senseless. I’d stupidly ruined my chance for representation thanks to my over-zealousness. Oh, how I wanted to take back that crappy attempt and demand a do-over. My inexperience and weak storyline had spawned a giant turd and it was out there, stinking up the streets of New York.

Friends and family consoled me and kindly remarked the story had sounded “just like a movie.” And, it does! My real-life saga read something like “Bridget Jones meets Crocodile Dundee in the bush.” In March 2009 I’d flown to New York for a reading in a bookstore for my first published essay and I met this hot British guy who happened to be a safari guide in Tanzania. He invited me to “come and write about it.” So, being the impetuous fool I am, I did. When I arrived six months later, in the wilds of Africa, he’d actually stood me up and I’m left alone with a small group of strangers on the scariest walking safari imaginable in the second-most remote place on earth called the Selous. More danger and hilarity ensued, and I eventually caught up with him before I left in Dar es Salaam, but five weeks later, he was crushed by an elephant while filming a series for the BBC. The man of my dreams was dead, literally dead. I’d titled the book “The Fairy Tale Hunter” because truthfully, I’ve spent my life searching for romance that pretty much only exists in my head. The agent’s pass on my project was like learning about Hot British Guy’s tragedy all over again – a devastating blow. But, I wasn’t completely hopeless. I had yet to hear back from one other L.A. agent who also had my nonsensical proposal.

By this time, the growth on my arm had become ulcerated and so painful that I finally made an appointment with my health care provider in Los Angeles now that I had all this free time. When the dermatologist and nurse practitioner caught a glimpse of the frightening nodule, they reassured me it was “probably nothing.” The grotesque blob was removed and sent to the lab and I went back to praying for a book deal.

Less than a week later, my cell phone rang displaying an unknown L.A. number and my hope soared because it just had to be the other agent dying to sign me, right? Well, not quite, but the “dying” part was right. When the doctor uttered the words “melanoma” and “lymph node-surgery” all in one breath, I never knew my heart could fall so fast. “Am I going to die?” I asked. “Well, (insert insanely long pause here), these things have a way of coming back,” the doctor told me. “And, well, your type of cancer is…”

Wait just a minute. Forget feeling bad about literary failure, I have effing cancer?! And, the type of melanoma I have is so uncommonly seen it even intrigued the world-renowned Dr. Donald L. Morton at the John Wayne Cancer Institute. Dr. Morton performed my initial surgery to remove the tumor and a large portion of my upper-arm along with it. I am classified as Stage III-B Nodular Melanoma. Only 15% of all melanoma patients have my rare type and the circular “node” exterior causes confusion as typically, melanomas have jagged edges. Not mine. It’s a weird little exception to the rule. People often mix up basal and squamous cell carcinomas (other common types of very treatable skin cancer) with melanoma. My only option for survival: more surgery if detected early enough. Chemotherapy and radiation do not work on melanoma. So, I go for PET scans, CT scans and other tests every six months for as long as I’m able.

Post-operative tests concluded that the cancer had spread to my sentinel lymph node so additional surgery was needed to remove all the nodes under my arm to prevent the cancer cells from metastasizing to my organs. I kept thinking, “I can’t die yet. I still have to write a better story.” But then it hit me – the upside of rejection. Had that New York agent given me the green light, knowing me, I would have thrown myself into a writing frenzy for as long as it took and totally blown off going to the doctor. Because that’s what I do – believe that something unreal, fantastical and unattained is more important than anything else. How is it that for all these years I’ve been living with the idea that what I don’t have is more important than what I do?

Not long ago, I happened to be in Scotland and I met this man in a pub who, after finding out I’m from California, jokingly asked, “Where’s your tan?” I just smiled. I didn’t have the heart to show him my hideous scars and go into my woe-is-me story. I learned early on that simply mentioning the word “cancer” in a social setting is a major buzzkill. So I have to stay out of the sun from here on out. No biggie. They’ve come along way with self-tanners.

But, seriously, I owe that New York agent my life. Had I waited even a few months longer and not sought help when I did, I would definitely not be here. It took every fiber of my being not to e-mail him back with, “How’s this for an ending? I have only a 52% chance to live another five years.” But I didn’t.

Although my words might not have inspired millions back then, perhaps these words can: Please schedule a skin check with a dermatologist TODAY if you have the slightest concern about a mole that’s changing in size.

I’d like to think that if even one person can be saved, now that would make one hell of a payoff.TC mark

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    Lifesavers come in many forms! An educational, awesome read!

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    Yo!

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    Best wishes, Rosalie Montanez

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