My grandpa was knowns as “Güero,” a Spanish term for a person with light complexion. He was a fair skinned, blue eyed man with red hair. By the time I was born, he red hair had faded into a beautiful white. I took after his fair features and stubborn nature. I had always been self-conscious about the color of my skin. As a teens my legs appeared almost translucent in my P.E. shorts and someone always had a comment about how white I was. I never really wore sunscreen as a teen. I never felt like I had to since I never burned or tanned very much when I was out in the sun. So why bother?
By the time I was in my twenties I was tired of the pale look and decided to try out a local tanning salon. As a newbie tanner I went in to my first tanning bed bare skinned for 10 minutes and quickly burned. I wondered why anyone would want to tan like this. Days later I understood why. After the redness and minor skin peeling subsided I had a beautiful glow. It was amazing.
I quickly learned the ins and out of tanning and became addicted to the standup tanning. I use to sneak away during my lunch hour to the nearby tanning salon and do a 12 minute tanning session with indoor tanning oils for added affect. I would return to my office with skin that had a distinctive burned smell. I would do my best to cover up with body spay but secretly I did not mind it much because I loved the way my skin glowed.
I received complements on my summer glow and worked hard to maintain it. My tanning routine last about three years until I became pregnant in my late twenties. I stopped tanning all together and the glow faded. I became a mom three times over and vanity was hard to come by when I was simply just trying to get through each day.
The Growth on My Face
In between the births of my second and third babies I noticed a growth on my face. Since I had begun
tanning several new freckles had simultaneously appeared on my skin. Nothing major, just a few new “beauty” marks. This growth however was different. It started off appearing to be a pimple but it never went away. I would try to pop it every once in a while and sometimes it would almost flatten out when I
messed with it long enough. Eventually it would reemerge and sometimes it would appear to be bruised inside. I learned to cover it and deemed it my “witch mole” because it reminded me of the moles that that the witches always had in the cartoons I would watch as a kid.
I learned how to cover it up with makeup when I would actually spend time on myself but mostly I forgot it was there. It was not until recently when I went to wipe a wet spot on my face that I realized the mole had started to bleed. After the spot initially ruptured it never seemed to heal. This went on for about three months before I got tired of being told that my face was bleeding by school teachers at drop-off or strangers in the market. I finally made an appointment with my doctor who did not seem too concerned over the mole but referred me to a dermatologist anyway.
Eventually another month went by before I would see the dermatologist for a biopsy. Even while sitting in the office the nurse practitioner did not seem alarmed by the half-healed mole. She kind of shrugged her shoulders when I asked her if it could be cancer and then offered to biopsy it for peace of mind. She said it was likely just a sensitive area on my face and nothing more since it did not meet the ABCDE’s rules of Melanoma. I figured it could not hurt to have the biopsy. If it turned out to be nothing then at least I could have my witch mole removed and my face would stop spontaneously bleeding in public. After a full body exam and marking other potential moles for followup, a biopsy was performed.
I was told that they probably would not reach out to me since this was “nothing,” but if I wanted to know for sure I could call the office in about ten days. I left with small circular bandaid on my face and immediately realized that people cannot help but stare at others when something is off. Although the wound and band-aid were small I could feel people looking and wondering what the bandage was covering on my face. I hated the feeling. No one would ask why I had the bandage but they sure would do a quick once-over with little hesitation. I removed the bandage as soon as it was safe. Once the area healed my confidence returned and I was thrilled to no longer have a mole.
Results Came Back Positive for Skin Cancer
I was sitting in my kitchen working from home as usual lost in some work goal when my phone rang. It was a local number not saved into my contacts so I let it go to voicemail. I did not want to be bothered in the moment. A few seconds later my phone lit up again, this time I picked up. The caller introduced herself as the nurse from my dermatologist’s office and quickly proceeded to tell me that the results of biopsy came back positive for skin cancer. I went numb.
The nurse went on to speak for another minute before I came to and told her to stop and repeat everything she had just said. With a pencil and a notepad I wrote down all the words she spoke as quickly as I could. I knew I would forget all the details and my Type A personality needs to know everything.
She said, “I am sorry to tell you but you have basal cell carcinoma,” which I scribbled on paper as “basil (like the seasoning) cell carsonoma,” because this term was new to me and honestly I am awful with spelling. She said it was a non-melinoma skin cancer—another detail I did not understand but I wrote it down anyway.
I Went to a Really Sad Place in My Mind
After the call I sat for another second and started to cry. I was alone and I was scared. Thoughts of my cousin which I have suppressed for years resurfaced. I went to a really sad place in my mind. My cousin died five years ago after battling breast cancer which eventually spread to her brain. I remember her telling me on Easter that she had found a tumor in her breast. She was in this beautiful soft pink colored dress, with awesome heals on and this shiny red hair. She was gorgeous and like a fool I thought someone so beautiful could not sick.
Her battle with cancer became our entire family’s battle. We rallied around her like soldiers trying to hold her up when she was mentally and physically down. In the beginning there was progress and positive outcomes but eventually her cancer returned with a vengeance and she needed to rest. When she left us we were all left broken.
I used to wear the color pink and my “Fuck Cancer” tank-top for her but stopped once she left us. I stopped donating to cancer related charities and ignored the topic of conversation whenever possible. I was over cancer.
So when I received my call the information scared me down to my bones. The fear was only countered with needing to know everything I could know about my form of cancer. I did an hour of research before calling my husband. I had to know all the answers before informing others on my diagnosis. If I knew everything there was to know and had all the answers, I could appear to be strong and confident. I learned how to spell basal cell carcinoma (BCC), learned what non-melanoma means, and learned of the various treatment options. In short, BCC is a non-life threatening form of cancer that rarely spreads to other parts of the body. My dermatologist would eventually tell me that BCC is the best form of cancer to have if you are going to have to deal with cancer at all.
Telling people you have a skin cancer is more difficult than I had initially thought it would be. I told my family that I was diagnosed with BCC by phone and by text during the remainder of that first week. I would often start by saying or writing— “So I have these cells on my face…” I avoid the C word in my conversation to avoid unnecessarily scaring others or sending my family into thoughts about our past experience with cancer. I explained that this is easy cancer and ensured them all that everything would be fine.
The reaction has been mostly positive with people telling me they have known others with the same diagnosis and stories positive outcomes. Others try to reassure me that my scar will not be “so bad.” I just always followup with, “Yes, I will be fine.” The reality is, I will be fine but my ego might be a bit bruised. The vanity that led me to tan so frequently is the same vanity that had me dreading my upcoming Mohs surgery. Although the area needed to be treated I was scared of physical scar. If people cannot help but stare at a circular bandaid on my face I can only imagine the looks a scar will bring about.
More importantlyI was scared of what my kids would think when I first showed them my face. They are still young but my son internalizes everything and I did not want him to worry about me. Also, my 2 year old daughter requests bandaid for every fall, bump or and mosquito bite, so she understands what a wound is. While I find myself doing my best to reassure others that this is more of a nuisance than something serious, I do not know how to reassure my kids that “Mommy will be fine.” I am supposed to be super mom, strong and fearless. But I think this will be a lesson for me on how to be strong while exhibiting real emotion and courage too.
I Am Relatively Young to Be Undergoing This Procedure
As I anxiously awaited the doctor to enter the procedure room , I was reminded that I am relatively young to have to undergo this procedure. While taking my blood pressure the nurse said, “You are really young to have a basal cell. Most patients I have seen here are in their seventies. Does it run in your family?” The answer of course is no. When I asked her if the scar would be large she said, “Let’s hope not, lets hope we caught it early.” After explaining that it has likely been around for about a 18 months she sort of gave me a sympathetic look and said, “We will see.”
The dermatologist did warn me in my pre-op that this will likely not be my last BCC. He said that for whatever reason my body is good at making them I have a lifetime to make more. I found another potential BCC on my lower eyelid recently while inspecting my skin like a crime scene. I have a referral request for an appointment with an ocular surgeon since the area is so close to my eye. Again, I am hoping for the best. For now, I will deal with this first set of cells on my cheek. I plan to tackle any others after this first procedure. Taking it on, one area at a time.
The initial procedure went well. In all it took about ten minutes and there was no pain involved.The waiting was the worst part of the entire appointment. As I sat in the lobby I was surrounded by a number of older men and women between 60 to 80 years of age. I
definitely looked out of place. Still, I quickly made friends with a few as we exchanged war stories about how we discovered our skin cancer and how much we had to have removed from our bodies. There was a sort of gentle understanding among the group that this entire process sucks no matter our age, location of the cancer, or whether this was a first or fifth bout with skin cancer.
After about 45 minutes of waiting they called me back in to the clinic room. Unfortunately, there was still a small area of cells that were not removed during the initial round of skin shaving. I had to go back in for round two in order to get the rest. While I waited for the second procedure I was in surprisingly good spirits as sat there sharing war stories with my senior allies.
I Am Cancer Free
Five and-a-half hours and two procedures and later, I am cancer free. My initial reaction to the news was simply— relief. I felt like I could breath again. I was not scared anymore.
The second was an overwhelmingly urge to see the damage to my face. The nurse allowed me to look at the wound through my camera phone and I will admit, it was difficult to look at.
When I was younger my grandpa use to have a Buick Regal. The Buick had cigarette lighters built into the armrests of the back passenger seating area. Not sure why but I guess passengers in the 1980s needed to light up too. Anyway, my cousins and I would ride around town with our grandpa after school. I will never say who actually did it but at some point the upholstery on his backseat was covered in circular cigarette lighter burns. I told this story to my nurse who was not amused when I compared my wound to the burns found in the backseat of my grandpa’s Buick. I thought it was a pretty funny comparison. Just like that I managed to find humor in an unpleasant sight. I was no longer fearful of the unknown because it was staring right back at me, literally. It was in that moment I knew I would be all right.
After the doctor stitched up my wound we had a serious sit down about the reality of the scar I would be left with. He said that I was young and would eventually be able to cover it with makeup, but it would always be there. The cancer aftermath.
Home with a Band-aid
The traffic-filled drive home offered me time to think about how I was going to explain the large bandage on my face. I had planned the toddler version of my “I had Cancer but I am fine” speech. But like with most things with kids, my planned speech never panned out. In fact, our oldest took one look at me, said hello and proceeded to jump on the couch. The two year old on the other hand came up to me, hugged my legs and said “mommy you have ouchy?” She made me kneel down in front of her and examined my face with a concerned look. I told her that I was fine and then she went on to play. That was that. Maybe they will ask for more information later and I will be ready to give it to them.
I kept the bandage on my face until the following evening when I was ready to take a closer look. It was not so bad. My stitches stretch a little less than one inch parallel to the side of my nose. The wound was pretty deep and the doctor managed to keep the exterior scar as small as possible. Although my face feels a bit tight I am sure the tension will ease with time. At least I hope it will.
We went to our son’s jiu-jitsu class followed by dinner with the kids while my badges were still intact. People definitely stared. It is kind of hard to miss a layer of gauze covered by numerous strips of bandage taped to a person’s face. Overall though, I am no longer uncomfortable with the thought of what other people think. I am satisfied with the outcome and with the idea that I no longer have cancer in my face. Today is a good day and tonight per my daughter’s request, I will go to sleep with a Trolls® themed glittery bandaid protecting my wound.
This experience has changed my habits for the better. I purchased a number of sun and baseball hats that I wear regularly now. I have even started a morning sunscreen routine for myself and the kids and have begun to shop for UV protecting clothing. I have become an my own personal expert in sun safety, learned how to properly examine my own skin, and how to push for a second opinion even when a professional does not think there is a cause for concern. I am my own advocate now.