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"It's ONLY Skin Cancer"

"It's ONLY Skin Cancer"

I have known Kelly through all the years of dealing with her cancer, and after reading her story, I was moved to tell mine.

"It's ONLY Skin Cancer"

The next time someone says that to me I am going to hit them in the head!  Well, not really, because I’m not a violent person, but I do get very annoyed by that remark. 

Deaths from skin cancer are well documented. Ever hear of Melanoma?  That form is the most serious form of skin cancer and it usually is NOT due to sun exposure.  Basal cell and Squamous cancers are not as life threatening, but can become so if not treated.  Even without the reputation of a death sentence, problems from skin cancer can be very serious.

I speak from experience. Growing up on the Jersey Shore with its beautiful white sand beaches, summertime meant 12 hour days in the sun. I was either swimming, life guarding or sailing out in the Atlantic Ocean. As a teen, my favorite sun tan oil was Bain de Soleil, but given its pricey sales tag, my friends and I made our own version. Johnson’s Baby Oil tinted with numerous drops of iodine was a miracle tanning oil we created. In those days, nothing was ever mentioned about the danger of too much sun on the skin. . .unless you were prone to burning and blistering. I was blessed with a pigment that just turned copper, and did so very easily.

It wasn't until I was in my 50’s when I discovered a painful blistery bump on my chest that I was concerned enough to see a dermatologist.  He did not waste any time at that initial appointment and proceeded to cut a large chunk out of my chest. When I remarked about the size of it and having a scar, he unsympathetically snarled something to the effect of “scar or cancer! Which would you rather?”

Of course I began to use sunscreens on my body and thought I would be fine from that time on.  WRONG!  In the last 7 years my poor face has been sliced and diced 5 times to remove a nasty form of basal cell carcinoma which invaded deep under the skin and spread like tentacles on an octopus. Unfortunately, the first MOHS surgeon, who operated on the first spot to show up between the bridge of my nose and the corner of my right eye, sewed me back up without testing the tissue for a second time. (MOHS surgery requires slicing off tissue and examining in a lab setting for about 45 minutes to make sure the margins are clear of any remaining cancer cells).  Well, this surgeon was eager to begin his vacation, so he did not examine the second slice.  I questioned him as I felt the tug of the needle stitching up the hole in my face. Three hours later, on his way to the airport, he called me to tell me that, “unfortunately, there were still some cells in the margin, but, he said, “It will be fine, we’ll just watch it.”   

Well, it wasn’t fine. It came back bigger and more painful, and required 4 hours of peeling my cheek away from my  nose to my ear and numerous painful injections to numb my face. This had to be done while I was awake. I had to have skin grafted on my cheek and my nose to cover the area where the excavation of the cancer existed.  Eight months of healing and I still, six years later, have weird tingling sensations from where all the nerves were cut during the procedure. It is kind of like a “phantom limb.” The nerves are trying to grow back together and reattach themselves. (By the way, as you may have guessed, this and subsequent surgeries were done by different surgeons.) Next, came a spot on the other cheek,  which required 2+ hours under the knife, a painful healing, and a pucker scar which is still visible.  Two more sessions in the area of my eye, where the first cancer appeared on my face, and all I can do is pray that there will be no more.

So, my cancer was not an automatic death sentence, but years of painful surgeries have not been a picnic in the park. I share this with you, because I urge you and anyone you know who may diminish the seriousness of skin cancer to have compassion and not repeat, “Oh you are so lucky, it’s ONLY skin cancer.

Patricia Merrill
Cancer Survivor
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