Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Face of Cancer

I wondered, “Should I write about something so personal? Something so sensitive? Something that makes me admit to the world and all its people that I am imperfect and feel pain? Something that made me cry tears until I wailed and tears that hurt so much that they wouldn’t even come out?”
You see, I have this responsibility now. Not only do I view the Internet as a body of knowledge, but I feel it’s important to contribute to that body and share. I feel that talking about something so personal is just what someone else may need out there in the world. I find it imperative to be informative and stand from rooftops begging my friends, family, and complete strangers to take care of themselves.
Cancer comes in all forms. While mine is perhaps the most mild of cases, it was still enough to shock this 27-year-old.  I mean, I’m twenty-seven. That’s barely old enough to figure out my place in life. Even scarier, if it had been detected sooner, I would have been diagnosed with cancer at 24. Twenty-four is really young.
To think… when I met the love of my life, cancer was just starting to form. When I received my first diamonds during the best weekend of my life (and my students won the Sportsmanship award during our track meet I coached…outside), it was there. During our engagement, it was there. On the day I married my best friend, it was there. During our most amazing month of road-tripping across the US, it was there. And during our entire 6 months of Germany and traveling… it was there then too. It’s interesting how life can be so fulfilling and everything I had ever imagined without even knowing that I would find out some terrible news about that darn spot that appeared.
I grew up in California and distinctly remember thinking that being tan was all the rage from about the age of 12. I was made fun of in middle school for being so “pale” when many of my friends were Hispanic or Asian. They had it easy; their skin was already naturally toned. I remember baking myself in the backyard and laying on rooftop decks with friends as we poured Banana Boat oil (with a minor SPF of 3) all over ourselves to attain that golden look. I remember going to tanning salons, purchasing the expensive lotions, burning myself, itching intensely from the dryness, and peeling away sunburns as if that was a normal  thing to do. I was even orange at one point from tanning so much. Through my college years, tanning was still important to me. I laid on the beach for 8-10 hours at a time during warm summer days with no regard to what damage I could be causing the skin that never forgets.
Then, I had a wake up call last year. Someone very close to me underwent Mohs surgery to have two moles removed that could potentially turn cancerous. That year, I made an appointment to see my first dermatologist. He checked my entire body and explained that the dark, flat spots are especially the ones to watch. No problem, I thought. I walked out thinking I was safe and invincible, still. My cancer was there, visible, but still undetected.
In late May of this year, I set an appointment for my second Dermatology visit here in the Chicago area. I actually had full intentions of having a bump on my face removed. It was a flesh-colored bump, perfectly round, and had been there for about 3 years that I could remember. I asked her to remove it (just because I didn’t like it) and she was alarmed enough with my story to take a biopsy of the small bump. At this point, she had removed nearly all of what was seen by the naked eye. Just six days later, I received a phone call. I knew that was bad news. No one ever calls if everything is alright, I thought.
When I called back, I was told that the spot was actually called Basal Cell Carcinoma. It’s a very slow-moving form of skin cancer that often affects the neck and face. It usually occurs in older adults, though it’s not proven entirely because the younger generation is not as current about their dermatology visits. There are over 1 million cases reported every year and they’re generally not deadly. I was told that I needed to undergo Mohs surgery within the next couple weeks. They explained that the surgery would be done in their office and they would cut the cancer out in stages, until all of the cancer has been removed. After each stage, doctors would look under a microscope to see the exact areas in which the cancer was apparent. You can have 10 sessions in one day, or sometimes just one. Once the surgery is over (done entirely with topical anesthetic shots), they stitch the area or find a more suitable way to close the wound.
I had cancer. CANCER. There are cancers of all kinds, but being able to say, out loud, that I had cancer…excruciating. I felt diseased, infected, contagious. It feels like a violation and it doesn’t feel fair… but it’s not really fair to anyone. I guess I could say that I had {luckily}, the little "c" instead of a big "c".
I went in to have the surgery done on June 1, 2010. Being scared probably doesn’t even sum up how I was feeling on that chair. I have had surgery before, but nothing life threatening. I had elective eye surgery the year prior (June 2009), wisdom teeth removal like most adults, and about 10 teeth pulled as a child prior to braces. I’ve never broken a bone and I’ve never had stitches. I would classify all my surgeries as mild and normal until this point. So, the idea of having stitches scared me. The thought of having my skin cut scared me also.
But, when there are no options, you must follow the path of responsibility. My path meant having surgery to remove something hazardous from my body.
Currently, I’m in a state of recovery. The surgery was (honesty) more intense than I imagined. The actual bump was less than a centimeter in diameter, but the incision was at least 10-15 times wider and deeper than what was visible on my skin prior to June 1. I had about 12 stitches on my face and ¾ inch scar that will remind me of this experience. I don’t really care about the scar. I just care that I am safe from harm.
I am vowing to never tan my skin again, wear sunscreen like it’s a religion, invest in hats, sit in the shade, and be proactive with my health. Believe it or not, that last bit is the hardest of all. Sometimes I don’t want to know that there’s something wrong with me. It’s so much easier to live life without fear and angst than to live with knowing that something is wrong. But, God has given these doctors wisdom and skill.
I now feel that I am allergic to the sun—like I will melt if I am under the rays for more than a minute’s time. I know I’ll heal internally as well as externally, but it’s not something easily forgotten.
These photos are a documentary of my life from the past 5 years. Once I found out about the cancer, I dug into my photos to see if I could spot when the cancer started to appear. Here is what I found. Focus on directly next to my left eye. Click on the photo for an enlarged picture. Click once more to have it enlarged even further.
2005, nothing. Not even a dot. 
2006... it appears a discoloration and a tiny, itty-bitty bump is starting to form.
Who would've thought that while taking engagement photos, I was documenting the formation of something that would later cause me sadness?
2008 and full-blown spot. See it? Though small, the angle of this photo doesn't even require an expansion.
Wedding day. Yep. There, too. It's a reverse image through the mirror next to my left eye.
Traveling the world with a secret I knew nothing about!

I trust that you will take care of yourself as well. Have bodily exams done yearly at the dermatologist. Be informed. Be bold. Buy sunscreen. Being tan is not cool, it’s hazardous. Your skin never forgets, has a lasting memory, and our actions can affect us later.
I’ll end with what the doctor told me just after he completed my surgery: “The good news is that signs of skin damage can be reversed. Your skin doesn’t forget, but it can be treated if you make good decisions, get regular checkups, and take care of yourself.”
Sure, I found that what he meant was a $2,000 chemical peel on my face and being insane about sunscreen use for the rest of my life… but at least there is hope.


Solange, Nik and Caitlin said... [Reply to comment]

:) I'm gonna call a dermatologist's been way to long! I'm glad you're all better.

Erin Farrell said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks for sharing. I had no idea that this was going on, but such a good reminder to make sure we get these things checked out. We are not invincible! So glad that all will be okay and that you've been able to take care of it. Be proud of your scar! It means you've taken care of yourself and you'll be around for a long, long time!!!!!!!!!!

Champ H said... [Reply to comment]

B- my friend, I'm glad you caught it and took care of yourself. You are an example to all of us to not ignore things because we are "busy" with life.

I'm going to make an appointment tomorrow! -Samiya