As I’ve gotten a bit older I’ve realized the importance of yearly dermatologist visits to get moles checked out. I’ve always been a lover of the sun – when there is a choice between a sunny patio and a shaded seat at a restaurateur I always chose the sun. I love to sunbathe and have my entire life, spending hours at the beach and oftentimes lathering up with SPF 5 tanning oil.
The worst thing I’ve ever done for myself is to use tanning beds. My senior year of high school I visited the tanning bed for the first time in an attempt to rid myself of tan lines for a dance. I used tanning beds throughout college on and off (not as much as I would have liked since they used to be more expensive) and then I had a monthly tanning bed membership for about 6 straight months while I was single and wanting to be forever tan at age 25. As I got older I started wearing real sunscreen and in the past few years I don’t sunbathe nearly as often, but I am out in the sun running, biking and swimming enough that even SPF 50 leaves me varying shades of golden brown nearly year round.
Although I’ve learned my lesson, it doesn’t take back the damage I did to my skin. Just like eating a mostly whole foods, organic, plant based diet isn’t going to completely reverse the damage I did from years of eating junk food. I’ve always been a freckly person and as I’ve aged more of the fun little brown dots have popped up. My face has sun damage visible without my never-leave-home-without foundation make-up and my chest is probably the worst area.
Until recently, my regrets related to my sun-worshiping past were mostly driven by vanity. I want to stay looking young and my sun damage isn’t helping that. However, at my most recently dermatologist appointment I was faced with some horrifying news that changed my perspective on the topic entirely. I’ve had what I thought was a zit that had made my forehead it’s home for about 9 months now. Looking back at photos, there actually has been a small dot there for nearly 2 years but it only really came out of its shell so to say about 9 months ago. I picked it (sorry if TMI) and it bled and I thought it’d go away like all zits eventually do. However it kind of stayed there and occasionally it’d bleed. I didn’t think much of it other than to complain to Mike that it wouldn’t go away. I thought maybe it was something other than a zit but honestly never considered it to be skin cancer. I was under the impression that skin cancer only came in the form of moles.
I told the nurse that checked me in that besides my yearly exam, I also was wondering if we could do something about this festering zit on my forehead. I told her my wedding was approaching and I’d rather not have to photo shop it out so maybe we could fix it. The doctor comes in and takes one look at it and declares “That’s skin cancer!” It was so immediate that it honestly didn’t even shock me. I was kind of like, “Oh…makes sense.” She then proceeded to tell me that it was likely basal cell skin cancer (she was 99% sure) and that they’d have to operate. She told me that we could wait until after my wedding since basal cell skin cancer isn’t dangerous and doesn’t spread. They took a biopsy and told me that they’d call me with the results which would mostly likely tell me it was basal cell and then we’d schedule the surgery for October. Slapped a band-aid on my forehead (which I had to wear for a week – very cool) and that was that.
However, a week later, I got a call from a nurse telling me that they had been wrong. My skin cancer was actually squamous cell which is more aggressive. She told me that since the cancer was on my face, I needed mohs surgery which is where they scrape a hole in your skin around the area and then I’d have to sit in the waiting room for 1.5 hours while they analyzed the skin in quadrants around it to see if there was more irregular cells to be removed. If so, I’d have to be operated on again and then we’re repeat the process up to five times until it was all removed. Needless to say, I was very freaked out about this. It was the end of the work day and she said she’d have to talk to the doctor about whether or not the surgery could wait til October but likely not. I proceeded to return to my desk and Google mohs surgery and squamous cancer and freak myself out looking at photos of people with holes in their face. I also read that squamous cell skin cancer could lead to death. I was terrified (google it if you want to be scared out of your mind).
The next day the doctor called and said yes, unfortunately we should operate before the wedding. I’d have a scar but we still had 8 weeks so it wouldn’t be too bad. The photos on Google flashed before my eyes of the holes in the head and I knew it would be bad. But of course, my health is more important than my beauty so I said yes. I had told Mike about it on Tuesday night and he told his Dad who had a connection with one of the best mohs surgeons in the county and I was prepared to have the surgery with that doctor within the next few days. However, I was having issues getting my slides to show the new doctor so we delayed the surgery a bit.
Thursday afternoon, two days after I’d be told I had squamous cell skin cancer and 9 days after I’d been told I had basal cell skin cancer, my doctor called to tell me that the pathologist looked at the slides again (this time it was the best pathologist) and that she and the pathologist both agreed it did not look like cancer anymore. There were some irregular cells but not cancerous. Relief hit me but at the same time I was also still scared. How could they change their minds? I definitely knew I needed a second opinion. Later during another call with my doctor over the issue of getting my slides in time for my scheduled appointment with another doctor for Friday, she told em that they looked yet again at the slides and were even more sure it was not cancer. Now I was starting to get angry that they put me through this!
Tuesday I had my second opinion and the surgeon I met with (who would have been the one to perform the mohs surgery) also agreed that the cells did not look like cancer. The slides have been sent to their pathologist as well but at this point I’m pretty confident that I’m ok. However, I learned some valuable lessons in this process.
1) Go see your dermatologist yearly for an exam. Even if you have no issues, go see your doctor! It is super cheap (just your specialist co-pay, mine was $40) and it takes about 30 minutes. You will have peace of mind that you aren’t going to pull an Izzy (Grey’s reference).
2) Not all skin cancer comes in the form of a mole. If you have a weird bump, lump or pimple that doesn’t go away for over 1 month, get checked out. Better safe than sorry! Although my bump didn’t turn out to be skin cancer, the photos I saw on google did look like it.
3) Even if you aren’t due for your 1 year appointment, get checked out! I waited to get my “zit” checked out for over 6 months after I realized it was odd because I didn’t want to pay whatever extra cost associated with seeing the dermatologist twice within one year. Stupid.
4) Always get a second opinion. Needless to say, I won’t be returning to the dermatologist that incorrectly diagnosed me within a minute of seeing me (and then misdiagnosed me again….). If your doctor tells you a weird bump you have isn’t cancer but you have a feeling something is off, you may want a 2nd opinion. And if you are told it is, get a 2nd opinion. My grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer and told he had 6 months to live. He forwent chemo and went home to die. After 6 months he called the doctor and told him he wasn’t dead and didn’t feel much worse than he did before. Turns out it was pnemonia in his lungs, not cancer. Oopsie.
5) DON’T USE A TANNING BED EVER AND WEAR SPF 30+ SUNSCREEN WHENEVER YOU ARE IN THE SUN. There won’t be much sunbathing in this girl’s future, that’s for sure.
Have you ever had skin cancer or a scare?