My skin cancer

Last summer I was diagnosed with skin cancer. Perhaps I was sheltered, but I hadn’t known anyone growing up who had skin cancer (or who had shared the fact), and so I didn’t know what to expect. I had had a biopsy done on my shoulder when I was a teenager, one that was so big that I needed stitches, so I wasn’t scared of the idea of needing a biopsy. I remembered that I was supposed to notice if something seemed to change color or grow larger, and I had been concerned about a spot on my face. I had thought it was a pimple when it began, but then it never went away. About two years after the spot appeared, it looked like this:

Finally, nearly three or four years after the spot first appeared, I noticed it growing in size considerably until it looked like this:

When I pointed the spot out to the dermatologist she was quite surprised, and basically said “Well, this looks like cancer.” So she said she needed to take a biopsy of it. Then she left, and came back. She apologized and said she needed to call the pathologist to learn how best to take a sample from a growth of this size. She started to leave, and she asked me something about if I was worried. I was still just thinking “well I’m having a biopsy done, that’s not new” and I told her I was fine. So she left. More time passed and she returned, and took the biopsy. By this time I was starting to feel worried, but I had already told her I was fine so she acted like it was all routine. To make matters worse, when she was rubbing the wound, she got something in my eye and it stung. I had to get up and rinse my eye in the water fountain while it hurt from some chemical she had dripped in it. Then she took a biopsy of another spot on my back, and told me that they would call me if I got a positive result, but that we should just go ahead and schedule an appointment for two weeks from then. So I left thinking I would hear as soon as they knew unless it was negative, in which case I’d learn in two weeks.

The dermatologist who had done the biopsy didn’t tell me much about what having skin cancer meant, so I left the doctor’s office that day feeling pretty unsure and scared. I called Husband (who at the time was still fiance) and he left work early to meet with me at a restaurant nearby. We talked, and when we went home I read up on skin cancer on the web. I deduced that it was probably non-melanoma skin cancer, of either the basal or squamuos cell variety. One thing that intrigued me was if 1 in 5 americans and 1 in 3 caucasions would get skin cancer at some point in their lifetimes, why had I not heard stories of people I knew or their families having skin cancer? But I was much comforted by the fact that

Fortunately, however, this is a cancer that has an extremely low rate of metastasis, and although it can result in scars and disfigurement, it is not usually life threatening.

Still it was a rough two weeks. I never got a call, and I showed up two weeks later wondering if I didn’t have cancer or if I did but they hadn’t bothered to call me. Well, it was the latter. And I saw it on my file before I even got into the doctor’s office, because the nurse had the file open with the information right on top while she was taking note of my insurance information. Right there I could see it: Basal cell carcinoma. In retrospect, I’ve decided that it was really inconsiderate of the doctor to neglect to call me. Those two weeks were pretty stressful for me, and I would greatly have appreciated knowing the result as soon as they had it.

It was on my face, so I had to get a special surgery called Mohs surgery, where they slice off a thin layer and then check the edges for cancer, and then repeat until the edges are cancer free. This was the first surgery I’ve ever had, and to have the word “cancer” attached to it was pretty scary. The nurses commented on how I was so young for this, which I didn’t appreciate. They do multiple people on the same day because the doctor can be slicing skin off while the technicians are checking someone else’s sample, so there were two other people getting it done that day. Both looked over 70. I was 22 at the time. Yup, that made me feel good.

From this experience I learned two lessons I always wish to share with everyone. The first is: Be very vigilant about sunscreen on your kids, especially if they are pale skinned. The doctors say the most damaging part of my history was the bad sunburns I had as a kid. Usually I used sunscreen – 45 spf – but I wasn’t always good about reapplying every few hours when we were out all day like at the beach, and if I was just out walking around, I often didn’t have sunscreen on. Nowadays, I use a spray sunscreen to protect my skin each morning before I go out. Lately I’ve been using Aveeno Active Naturals Continuous Protection Sunblock Spray, SPF 45, which I like a lot. I keep it in my purse in case I find I’m outside more than I expected and I need to reapply. I also really like Neutrogena Fresh Cooling Body Mist Sunblock, SPF 45, which has a cooling feel as it is applied to your skin. Because these products are so easy to apply, it’s not much trouble to wear sunscreen every day. I also have Coppertone Sport Continuous Spray Breathable Sunscreen, SPF 50, but I don’t like it so much for daily use as it’s oil-based and feels thicker. However, it’s good for times when I will really be outside a lot, particularly if I’ll be sweating or getting wet. Additionally, I now wear a visor when I’m outside to further protect my face from the sun.

The second lesson is: See a dermatologist regularly to get your moles checked out, especially if you have a lot of moles or very pale skin. I’m not too concerned about the scar on my face, which blends in pretty well now although it was brighter at the wedding. Still, if I had seen a dermatologist sooner it wouldn’t have needed to be as big. And giving cancer time to grow is really not a wise risk to take. If you are pale skinned or have had biopsies done before, they recommend seeing a doctor once a year for a mole check. If you are not at particularly high risk for skin cancer (dark skin, not many moles, never noticed them changing), then once every 2-3 years is sufficient. And of course if you’ve had skin cancer before, it is essential to see a dermatologist every six months.

So anyhow, that’s the story of my first brush with skin cancer. It may not be my last, as something like 50% of people who’ve had skin cancer once will get it again somewhere on their bodies. But the moral of the story is: WEAR SUNSCREEN.


4 thoughts on “My skin cancer

  1. Wow! Thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m so glad you’re okay and that now you’re diligent about sunscreen and getting checked.

    I am VERY fair skinned and have lots of freckles and moles, so I usually get looked over yearly by a dermatologist. It took me a while to find one that was really thorough. The first two just kind of glanced at me and left me saying stuff like “what about this one? and this one here?” The one I have now is incredibly thorough– almost anal about it!

    My mom also says she was nuts about putting sunscreen on me as a kid. I need to be more careful about wearing it though daily. Because of your blog I just put Aveeno spf 45 in my bag– hopefully that will remind me to put it on throughout the day!

  2. Yay! I like carrying it around in my purse, that way if I find I’m outside for unexpectedly longer than normal (usually it’s just walking between places I need to be), I can just take it out and spray on more!

    You’re lucky your mom was good about putting it on you as a kid. I got my father’s skin; my mom’s is a little darker and she tans (although she does burn too, but it turns to tan after. Mine just peels off and is white again). She didn’t know how important it was to reapply every few hours when we at the beach, and so I often got bad sunburns on our vacations even though I’d put on spf 45 before we went outside. Plus in general a lot more is known now about the risks involved in sun exposure, and especially I think it was only recently that they realized it is particularly damaging during childhood. So props to your mom for keeping your skin well protected!

  3. I’m still looking for a better dermatologist, too. I have a friend who told me hers is really good and checks everywhere, but the doctor is in a part of Manhattan that it’s a bit inconvenient for me to get to, and there are so many doctors here I’m sure I’ll find one I like in a convenient part of the city. Still looking, though, as originally I had kept seeing the doctor who I described in this post, but I’ve decided I want to find someone new as I’m unhappy with them not having called me and her being careless, and she didn’t check the rest of my body very thoroughly, either.

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