Skin Diaries

Adjusting to Life After a Skin Cancer Diagnosis

Part of me wasn’t surprised when the biopsy results came back positive. Of the three bumps I felt on my scalp and had checked, one was squamous cell carcinoma. When I got the diagnosis, I thought about all the things I loved to do outside in the sun. I loved to spend long weekends hiking in New York’s Hudson Valley. I went jogging and cycling multiple times a week, and I spent summers at the beach. My most memorable travels were always outdoor adventures, like hiking the Path of the Gods in Amalfi, Italy, the Grand Canyon, and the Torres del Paine in Patagonia. I even had an outdoor wedding!

I had always thought I was pretty good about applying sunblock (usually SPF 30) to protect my skin. What I realize now is that I have been completely ignoring my scalp. It makes me angry thinking about it. It all makes sense now. My hair has always been cut short—and it’s not particularly thick—which leaves my crown completely vulnerable to sun damage.

I’m not sure I consider myself to be a “Skin Cancer Warrior” per se, but I’ll admit to wanting to ‘attack’ this problem head-on.  The good news in my diagnosis was that my cancer was considered ‘In situ’, meaning we caught it early enough. Regardless, I didn’t want to waste any time so I quickly scheduled my MOHS surgery with Dr. Vinelli in Morristown, NJ for June 9th, 2020 one month after the biopsy results.

The first thing I remember about that day was my conversation with the doctor. He told me that I had great skin for my age (50 at the time), but my scalp looked like “the skin of a 75-year-old”.  Food for thought…

I sat and made small talk with the surgery staff as they clipped the hair off my crown. Then a large section of my scalp was shaved with a straight razor. I nervously joked about looking like a monk, and not leaving the house until my hair grew back. Then a sheath was draped over the sides of my head and face.

The surgery was done under local anesthetic, but I could hear snipping, scraping, and feel the dabbing of gauze and tugging of the skin while it was being sewn closed. I wondered what the site would look like when the surgery was done and thought about all the types of hats I would buy to cover the scar. The more tugging I felt, the tighter the skin on my head and face felt. It was a strange sensation…Was I inadvertently getting a facelift? 

Then it was over. I was prescribed pain killers and an antibiotic cream and was told to remove the bandage the next morning. Additionally, I couldn’t exercise for at least two weeks and needed to avoid all strenuous activity. Hmm. 

The next morning, my husband helped me remove the bandage and the look on his face said it all. We both had underestimated the amount of damage I had, and size of the incision needed to get it all.   

Over the following months and with 2020 being what it was, I continued working from home while I healed. I took Zoom meetings and would carefully position the camera to be sure my coworkers couldn’t see the scar.

Eventually, I let my head tilt just enough and my boss saw the scar (and ‘monk cut’) and asked me what happened. As it turned out, he also had MOHS surgery on the bridge of his nose. We compared notes and lamented, saying things like, “If we could only go back and do things differently”. 

We talked about how we were dealing with our diagnosis. He’d started staying out of the sun entirely while I was hiding under hats. He doesn’t go to the beach anymore and I’ve started sitting under umbrellas and wearing sun shirts. We each have different approaches to how we’re handling our brush with skin cancer. Both of us are fully aware that we’re even more susceptible to more damage.  I think the most important thing is that we have both changed our habits and are in a position to help others.

As ‘skin cancer warriors’ we can tell people what happened. Not to scare them—or gross them out. But we get to share our stories with one another, and with everyone around us because this experience is entirely preventable. If we can teach people to protect their scalp, shield their faces, wear sunblock and sun-protective clothing, fewer and fewer people will experience this cancer. For that I’m grateful.

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