The Waiting Room at Leper Airport

I have a secret: My cancer is back. But how lucky am I?  Very. I have the most benign type you can have- and maybe you do, too.

This first came up two years ago when I was in for my annual physical. I usually don’t mind this appointment too much, other than that brief but highly invasive part.I like my doctor; I’ve been seeing her for about 20 years and I’m so healthy that means I’ve seen her about 20 times. It’s a chance to discuss the usual middle-aged issues of cholesterol and menopause. I’m gaining weight at about the rate of a pound a year for the last decade- nothing seems to impact that but I started lean so I’m still on the better side of matronly. Two years ago, after she pronounced me fit and healthy she asked, "Anything else? Any concerns?" I usually forget most of what I was going to ask her but at the last moment I said- oh, there’s this tiny spot on my forehead that bleeds when I rub hard with a towel. She said, "Where? I don’t see it." and it took getting a mirror and both of us poking around a minute to find it. It was that small. She said I should see a dermatologist and referred me to the one who is known to have the best skills and the worst bedside manner in town.

I saw her a week later and faster than fast she had punched two gaping holes in my face, the second some invisible spot I never did see, announced that she would call me when she got results and zoom! she was gone. I was sitting there thinking, Whoa! what was that all about? She had used some special zapper gun to staunch the flow of blood so I went home and waited for her to call as my face scabbed over.

Within a week I was slated for surgery at the Mohs Clinic at University Hospital. They take care of all basal cell carcinomas that show up on people’s faces around here. Believe me, the place was mobbed. The surgeons there are trained in both oncology and plastic surgery and the technique involves cutting craters in your face, often in several steps, as lab techs run the tissue to the pathology lab to see if they need to take more. In between these episodes everyone sits around a large soothing waiting room watching televisions suspended from the ceiling. They have lots of TVs and people try to spread out and sit as far away from anyone else as possible. FG went with me and as we sat there watching Katie Couric pipe on about something he said, "this is a lot like the airport- only for lepers." I think he thinks he’s funny.

The nasty part of basal cell carcinoma is what you see on the surface is nothing- sometimes literally- compared to what’s below the surface. By the time you find it, it’s set up housekeeping but good.
The upside, of course, is that it can be cured. It rarely goes anywhere else. Whack it out, sew it up and it’s gone. So that pinprick spot on my forehead required removing a circle the size of a quarter, right between the eyes, right down to the bone. It took 40 some stitches to close it. The other spot between my lip and nose was smaller but harder to close because I didn’t have much flexible tissue; that one itched, scabbed and festered for weeks.

FG took me home and I gave in to self pity after looking in the mirror. Where there had been a pinprick there was now the Grand Canyon with all the jagged ridges and cliffs. A week later they removed the stitches and patted themselves on the back for a job well-done. And although it took a while, believe it or not, no one can tell it was there unless I point it out. Plus it tightened up all the lines in my forehead. The lip one is still noticeable and looks like a small chicken pox scar.

Before he left on a business trip today FG asked me when I was going to see the dermatologist and I said, "You mean when am I going to go get my face carved up again?" I REALLY don’t want to go back. And for the moment there’s nothing to even see but I’m so attuned to it now that I can feel a couple barely discernible places. It’s discouraging but I really do feel very very fortunate that this is the extent of my health issues.

This is where I give you the moral to the story. And you already know what it is. Basal cell carcinoma
is only caused by over-exposure to the sun. And that could have occurred, as mine did, years ago. I don’t sun worship but I have that very fair skin that burns before it ever tans. I’m not blond (never was!) but even with brown hair and green eyes I’m the type. And way back when, my parents didn’t know about sunscreen and sun protection. You do. You have no excuse. USE YOUR SUNSCREEN! Always. Cover your babies and children with it. Force your bathing beauty teens to use it. Slather it all over yourself and your friends. Get kinky with it- but use it. None of that whimpy 8 SPF either. Go for the big guns. Or you might end up in the waiting room of the leper airport.

(I left my favorite hat in Florida so Marci, from BCMA, has kindly loaned me this one. Ain’t it grand?)Hat

11 responses to “The Waiting Room at Leper Airport

  1. First, I would like to lead everyone on the World Wide Web in the folloiwng exercise:

    Breathe in…. (whooooosh)
    Breathe out… (waahhhhhh)
    Do this ten times in relief and gratitude that Vicki is okay.

    Very good. Let us now proceed with my comment:

    That was gnarly, that cutting right down to the bone. This would have been the proper place to insert a glass third eye. Cyclops chic!

    I am truly pleased that all is well. Look at you and your lush and lovely garden! A metaphor for good health.

    All the best from your fan…

  2. What Grace said, from A-to-Z, and…

    My own fear (per the post you earlier commented on) involves diminished time with my children. Unfortunately, I still smoke and as many times as I’ve tried to quit, I can’t seem to get the hang of it. Then again, I don’t start trying to quit when I have them because I can be such a bear. You see the dilemma.

    With summer approaching, I’ll take your moral to heart. Taking the kids camping anywhere between 8 – 10 thousand feet puts us a little closer to the sun. No matter how much they whine, the SPF goes on. And daddy will be a good example with that.

  3. Thank you Grace and Jim. Jim- I did post it as sort of a public service announcement 🙂 I had no idea how prevalent it was among 50 year olds who never got sun protection and how preventable it is with sunscreen use beginning in early childhood.

  4. Nice, instructive story, Vickster. So far I seem to have avoided stuff like that except for some small zits on my hands, which were conquered by the freezing method. I would NOT want to undergo what Vicki did!!

  5. I have a recurring AK (actinic keratosis) on my left jaw. We’ve been frozen, curettaged, burned, peeled and chemotherapied. I can always tell when it’s coming back…the slightest little tingle. Do basals have that sensation? My husband just got the results of his biopsy from last week on his lip. Blessedly it too was AK. Root doctor that I am I had already diagnosed squamous cell on that one. Glad I was wrong. How I am paying for my sunburn-be-damned youth.

  6. Another Vicki with just an i ! I thought- wait, I didn’t write that comment…No, Vicki, there’s actually no pain or sensation at all with BCC. The only telltale signs are a tiny spot that will bleed if rubbed hard but then it stops, doesn’t ever get inflammed or anything- and then a week later it happens again,same spot. And so on. Also if you put pressure on the the skin around it you can actually see a sort of translucent area- a bit lighter than your normal skin tone. I hear that if you ignore it too long it will develop into more of an apparent lesion- not recommended keeping in mind that it’s mostly subcutaneous.

  7. YES, But WHAT do you LOOK like???

  8. kinda like an alpaca. Not as furry, same expression.

  9. OOOooo now I am checking my body over for things that bleed when I rub them. I am also far skinned; I burn before I tan; I too have green eyes… Oh dear. Thank you for the warning.

  10. You divulge much, yet so little!

  11. Vicki,
    You look stunning in your gardening duds.

    Nevertheless, I am stunned to hear the BCC is back. It makes me feel sick, actually. As “benign” a cancer as it usually may be, the idea of any cancer still conjures nightmares. And it’s not just the word; it’s the possible gouging, and the people in your face, and the time spent thinking and doing cancer stuff when you have so much other beautiful and important stuff that you do.

    Your circle of friends is a long, wide, comforting wrap; we love you and will see you through this as much as you’ll let us. (That’s not always so easy for some of us, the letting others part.) Please take care.

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