It all started with a patch of flaky, dry skin on my face that would come and go. A friend suggested I have it checked, that’s when my cancer journey began…
I quickly became familiar with the term “punch biopsy”. It’s when your doctor takes a tool that punches out a piece of skin for testing. As you can imagine, it hurts! On my very first visit, they found melanoma on my nose and cheek.
I was shocked that this was happening to me. I shouldn’t have been surprised as my face is always exposed to the sun. In an effort to preserve my appearance, I found the best plastic surgeon around. He was as conservative as he could be but left me with a nose full of stitches. It was extremely humbling to have to wear a huge bandage on my face, but I carried on and healed with little scaring. I was so thankful that my friend was concerned enough to get me to a doctor.
Three months later, I returned for my quarterly appointment and had more spots “punched” out of my face and leg, followed by another cancer diagnosis.
At this point, I remember being mad at my mother for not protecting me from the sun. Truth is, there was so much we didn’t know back then, and still don’t know now! As my children got older, we had many arguments about sunscreen and tanning booths. Along with my friends, they saw what I was going through but assumed they weren’t at risk. I had cancer because I was blonde and fair skinned. Not true.
I was learning how lonely skin cancer can be. I was ashamed that I had opened the door for skin cancer every time I tanned without protection. Every three months, they cut out a little more of me and left me with more and more scars. I felt emotionally and physically disfigured and couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I also had to watch my friends and family keep making mistakes I’d made in the past.
I quietly started to change my way of life because I was afraid of the sun. The Caribbean vacations I used to love were no longer an option. When we’d go on biking trips, I was never comfortable unless we knew it would be very cloudy or shady. When we golfed, I insisted on a golf cart. We started to fall off our friend’s list because I was too high maintenance. I was scared!
While I was rearranging my personal life to fit the sun’s schedule, I continued my quarterly visits to the doctor and found more cancer. This time we used a chemo cream that ate away all the skin on my face and chest. I looked like something out of a Frankenstein movie. I joke about it, but inside I wasn’t laughing. I still had to work, which was the extent of me leaving the house. It’s a very lonely disease. How do you talk to friends about this when you’re hiding inside and they’re out enjoying the sun worry-free?
On my next visit, they removed a piece of my chest about three-inches long and one-inch wide and prescribed more chemo cream. It was extremely painful—a truly bloody mess. I’d sleep on my side and the ooze would dry, then crack when I moved. It was very painful and ugly, but I had to do it. I wore a lot of shawls to cover my chest.
While I was recovering from that, I had two more punch biopsy’s and we found melanoma on my back that left a horrible scar. Luckily, that was the last melanoma I had removed. Over the next few years, I was diagnosed with squamous cell, which thankfully could be taken care of with nitrogen.
In January 2018, I celebrated five years without cancer! I left my appointment wondering who I would celebrate with. People don’t think of skin cancer like they do lung or breast cancer, but people still die from it every day. I celebrated quietly with my husband as I scheduled an annual (not quarterly) check-up. SUCH a wonderful feeling.
These days, I have very few moments of shame or loneliness. I know how to protect and care for myself and can make sure others do too. Sun protective clothing has been a God-send. I can get out and golf, ride bikes and enjoy the pool with my grandchildren without as much fear. I’m finally learning to get back in the sun.
I’m also not alone anymore. I am so thankful for the doctors and dermatologists that help diagnose and treat skin damage before it becomes melanoma. Because of them, everyone is more aware of the risks. Because of my experience, I have the power to make sure others know what they’re up against when they go outside. Everyone has to make their own choices, but I have the knowledge to help keep them safe. For that I’m grateful.