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.