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How Skin Cancer Changed My Life

The experience was stressful — and traumatic.

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woman laying on towel reading on beach in the sun
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For my first 30 years or so of life, I was a sun goddess. I loved summer, I loved the heat, I loved everything about baking myself in the sun — slathered in baby oil, of course, and flipping over every 30 minutes like a skewered pig roasting on a fire. The pool or the beach was my happy place, and I literally couldn’t get tan enough. During the fall and winter months, I baked myself in the tanning bed to keep my “natural glow” all year long. I just felt prettier with a tan.

And then I got skin cancer.

First it was on my left shoulder, a basal cell carcinoma, which basically looks like a bright pink patch of skin. If you’re going to get skin cancer, this is the type to get. The “good kind,” which means it’s not life-threatening. But it still has to come off, so I underwent same-day surgery and walked away with a lovely four-inch scar on my shoulder.

After that, I had to be checked regularly at the dermatologist, as I have a TON of moles — and moles can lead to the “bad” skin cancer, melanoma. I wound up having three or four unusually shaped and odd-colored moles removed from my back, and though none turned out to be cancerous, I was left with three or four more scars.

All of this culminated in one of the most traumatic, stressful experiences of my life last summer … when I had to have a quarter-sized basal cell skin cancer removed from my right cheek. It had been there for a while, and for reasons I still can’t fathom, a previous dermatologist had told me to simply “watch it.” As it continued to grow, I got more and more concerned … knowing it would eventually have to come off … and the idea of scarring on my face terrified me. The surgeon at my new dermatologist’s office assured me that it would be fine. He would send me to a plastic surgeon he would trust with his own face to close it up and, yes, I would have a scar but nothing makeup wouldn’t easily cover.

My dermatologist raved about the plastic surgeon he referred me to so effusively, I went against my normal habit of exhaustively researching and reading reviews and just trusted my doctor. (Had I read his reviews, I wouldn’t have let the surgeon he recommended anywhere near my face.) The day of surgery, my dermatologist first removed the quarter-sized area from my cheek in a two-hour procedure in which I opted to be awake and under local anesthesia. (I don’t like to be put to sleep unless I absolutely have to be.) Later that day, I went to the plastic surgeon’s office to have him close the wound. And while he was a nice enough man, I knew in my gut from moment one that something was off. First of all, it only took him MAYBE 15 minutes to close the wound, which seemed extraordinarily fast, given that it was on my face. He then got up to go put out some other fire happening in the office before he had even finished bandaging my face. When he returned, he bandaged me up and told me he’d see me in eight days to get the stiches out. “Wait. Do I need to leave this same bandage on for eight days? What are my instructions for cleaning the wound?” He assured me that, yes, I was to leave the same bandage on for eight days. That seemed unsanitary and wrong to me, so I reiterated the question, and again got the same response. You can imagine what happened next. Within a day, the bandage was gross and bloody, and I had to return to the office to ask the nurse to clean the wound and redress it for me. She sighed loudly. “Did the doctor not tell you how to clean the wound and send you home with bandages?” I told her no, he hadn’t. And my gut again felt the same check I had felt the day before … that the care I was receiving was not as it should be.

When I went back to get the stiches taken out a week later, the nurse ripped a hole in the wound during the removal process … and to make a really long and stressful story short, I was left with a big, gaping hole in my face as the scar healed. Or didn’t heal, as the case may be.

I had tanned my whole life, risked my health my whole life, because I had thought a tan made me “prettier.” And now I might be scarred for life … on an area of my body I could hardly hide: my face.

Thankfully, I found a wonderful new plastic surgeon and sought a second opinion, and he performed a revision operation on the scar about a month and a half after my first two procedures. I was hopeful about the outcome, but the recovery process was long and arduous, as my new doctor didn’t want me to do anything at all to risk the scar breaking open again as it healed. He essentially had to cut out the entire old scar and start fresh. This entire process caused me to lose a massive amount of skin on the right side of my face and the new scar was about five inches long. I had dissolvable stitches and layers of surgical glue on my face for almost three weeks, as well as pretty intense swelling due to the trauma of having had three operations in less than two months.

During this season of my life … I watched so many things die. My social life. My dating life. My summer. My normal, everyday existence. Going out in public without being stared at. Being able to touch my face or sleep comfortably or even cry. One day I was crying from frustration and I wanted nothing more than to bury my face in my hands and bawl ... just really let loose. But I couldn’t, because I couldn’t risk compromising the scar on my cheek. Carrie Underwood’s song “Cry Pretty” really spoke to me, because not only could I not cry pretty, but I couldn’t cry at all without potentially causing damage to my scar.

Despite the months of stress, fear, anxiety, pain and healing … my story does have a happy ending. Almost a year later, you can hardly see the scar on my face. My second plastic surgeon is a brilliant doctor and did a beautiful job erasing the damage the first surgeon did. But the real damage was done by me, for years, roasting myself and my skin in the sun. I would go back in time and shake some sense into myself if I could … and when I go to the tanning salon nowadays to get a spray tan, I want to shake the people still willfully choosing to lie in a box and let tanning bulbs put their health at risk, their skin at risk, their LIFE at risk. I just want to shake some sense into them and tell them it’s NOT WORTH IT. Being tan is not worth risking cancer. It’s just not. Nothing on this earth is worth that, and certainly not vanity. Not to mention, if you’re tanning in the name of vanity — tanning ages you tremendously! There are so many other options now, from spray tanning booths to tanning creams and lotions.

So please … this summer as everyone is rushing off to the beach and the pool and the lake, take precautions. Use sunblock. Invest in a fabulous wide-brimmed sun hat. Sit under a beach or pool umbrella instead of baking yourself out in the sun. Get checked regularly by your dermatologist, particularly if you have a lot of moles. And if you must have a tan (and I get it), invest in a spray tan or self-tanning cream. Your skin will thank you. And you’ll be alive to celebrate many more summers to come.