Just FYI: I’ve updated this post here.
“So…I had skin cancer. I had surgery. I’m totally fine. I just wanted you to know because we are having dinner in a few days and I didn’t want you to freak out when you see a huge wound on my neck.” That is how my phone conversation went with a really good friend recently. This is the story of when I found out I had basal cell carcinoma and had it removed with Mohs Surgery. Oh and it is also about how I became depressed. I want to share my story in case you know anyone who has one of the “better” skin cancers, like basal cell, or you have it yourself. It is ok to be scared. Even though a lot of people will not give it a second thought, it is ok to feel uneasy about it. WARNING: I share photos with my stitches. If you are squeamish, you may want to skip it. I mean, its not all that grotesque but want to give fair warning. And since this post is super long and some of you may not want to read the whole thing I’ll be using a post break. If you want to read on, just click “more.”
This summer, my dad was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. He is fair skinned with light eyes and I totally take after him. This California girl enjoyed her time in the sun all through high school and in to college. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some time in a tanning bed prior to my wedding…Needless to say my own chances of having skin cancer were pretty high. I have had moles removed in the past but recently have been noticing some things that I felt were a bit out of the ordinary. So given my own past and now had a family history of skin cancer, I decided it would be best if I saw my doctor. The two main concerns for me were a little red mark that had been on my neck for about two months (effing eczema, I thought) and a mole close to my ripple that had a white ring around it (yes, I said ripple. I don’t want any McPerverson’s coming to my site after searching for the female body part – and I think you can figure out which one I mean). My general practitioner didn’t think anything was wrong with those two things but didn’t like the way a mole looked on my back and referred me to a dermatologist. I’m so glad that I had that bad mole because the first things the dermatologist wanted to address was the mole with the white ring and red spot. If you think something is wrong but your doctor isn’t listening, for sure get a second opinion! So I’ve become very familiar with my dermatologist’s office and its pinkness.
So began the journey of having moles biopsied. The dermatologist evaluated my body and we’ve set about prioritizing moles. You know how there is a checklist of all the signs to look for when deciding if a mole is potentially cancerous? Well, all of mine meet at least 5 out of the 6 of the criteria. So even though you know this story has a happy ending because I am writing this post, I still have many things to be removed and watched and will for the rest of my life.
Most of my visits result in me being numbed up and moles sliced away. I’ve had 4 or 5 removed so far. On one particular visit, my dermatologist said “If I call you, don’t freak out. It doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong.” But then when the call came, he said, “You know if I’m calling, something isn’t right…” That was my neck. And it was basal cell. He explained that because of where it was, he would refer me to another dermatologist who specializes in plastic surgery who would proceed with a procedure to remove all the cells. I didn’t know until right before the surgery that it would be Mohs Surgery, the same that my dad had that summer. So leading up to it, I just thought it would be pretty similar to the mole removals I had done so far, which required a small bandage for about a week. To be fair, I do remember my dermatologist telling me that I may end up with a few stitches but I’ve never had stitches, aside from child birth (hey if I’m sharing, I’m sharing everything) so even a few stitches seems insignificant.
I didn’t really know how to feel about this news. I was kind of scared but most people I talked to were not that worried. I went out to dinner the night that I found out. One close friend said, “yeah I had that, they just take it off, right?” And we moved on. Several of the moms from my son’s elementary school have had basal cell and they seem totally fine with it. And knowing that my dad had the surgery, that it was “no big deal” and was pretty common left me feeling, well, it left me not feeling. I never really thought about it. So I didn’t make any special phone calls to friends with news of my skin cancer. I didn’t need any extra support.
Here is my, probably very wrong, description of what Mohs Surgery is. First they remove the area that they believe to contain the cancer cells. There is a pathologist right on site who evaluates the cells and determines if they need to go back and take more tissue. They do this as many times as they need to in order to remove all cancer cells.
So the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, my husband took the day off of work and went with me to the most gorgeous dermatologists office ever in Newport Beach. I have not seen any bills from this procedure yet and I will probably have to sell everything I own to pay it but at that moment, I needed all the amenities they provided. The most amazing front desk gal had called a few days before and explained that I should plan on being there the whole day. Up to this point, I really thought I would be in and out. The office smelled like a spa. The music was relaxing and everyone was beyond friendly. But I was pretty darn nervous.
My father’s Mohs Surgery experience was much different from mine. I was given my own private room with space for my husband to work and a tv to watch. The entire procedure would be done in this room and the doctor would come to me. I was free to get comfy and enjoy the time there as much as possible. And I totally did at first! My dad’s surgery, on the other hand, was done similar to how a lab is set up. The patient is called back in to a room, cuts made, and then sent back out to the waiting room with everyone else. That part alone would have probably done me in.
To start, they marked and measured me.
Remember the front office gal I mentioned? Well, she is like the best hostess ever. She brought me coffee. And teased me with treats she would be bringing around later. It was nice to spend some time with my husband. It was all very relaxed and enjoyable.
My husband and I, still in good spirits, took joke pictures to send to his mom. He doesn’t do well in medical situations so we thought this seemed appropriate.
The dermatologist did round one. They laid me back, numbed me up and sliced away. It took just a few minutes. It wasn’t awesome, but it was manageable. They took the cells to evaluate. We were told it would take about an hour so we just had to relax and wait.
Sweet, sweet lady. First my husband and I were brought warm cinnamon swirl bread. Then an hour later she came by with these abelskivers from Trader Joes! I loved this place!
The doctor came in and said they needed to take more. For the second round they needed to do some cauterizing. I’m not going to explain that, it’s gross. But it made it a little more real. Like, hold up, this isn’t just a little cut anymore. They ended up going in a third time before I was finally told they got all the cells. As it was now lunch time, we were brought delicious sandwiches. I made a joke about when the masseuse would come and was very seriously told 4:30pm. But I wouldn’t be there that long. At this point I just needed to be stitched up. So while the original red mark appeared to be very small, the cancer was actually much larger below the surface. WARNING: STITCHES AHEAD JUST AFTER THE NEXT PICTURE.
I was pretty ready to go home at this point. I had been sitting all day in the same chair. Thank goodness the TV had Bravo to get me through.
The nurse laid me back and began prepping me for stitches. I got REAL nervous. The doctor explained that I would be getting two rows of stitches, one inside that would dissolve on their own, and one outside that I would have to get removed a week later. When the doctor started stitching I totally lost it. I started crying and they were so confused. I was not in any pain but I think the magnitude of the procedure finally hit me and I was choosing to deal with all the emotion that I had repressed during the stitches. I just couldn’t stop. I was a hot and sweaty mess. And then I saw how many stitches I had. Wait, what? I was given care instructions – keep that first dressing on for 48 hours without getting it wet, then change the dressing twice a day for a week. Wait, what? I couldn’t take a shower for 2 days? That wasn’t in the plan! I had to come back in a week for stitches to be removed? I couldn’t exercise for a month? Well that one I was totally on board with but everything else, a total shock.
They didn’t give me any pain medicine and said I should only need a Tylenol. That first dressing was so big I had trouble turning my head. The tape pulled like crazy and I was really uncomfortable. We got out of the doctor’s office around 2:30pm. And headed straight to Toys R Us. Wait, what? Yup, I needed to get a gift for my son that was starting to sell out places. Since I had it in my head that I would go when I finished, it just seemed like the right thing to do. My husband drove me. I think at that point he would have done anything to make sure I didn’t start crying again. In hindsight, I don’t think that was the best decision I’ve ever made. I got the toy and some other shopping done, but I was uncomfortable, exhausted, cranky and needed to be cozy in bed.
I had called my mom on the way home and asked her if she could keep my boys another night. All of a sudden it seemed, I couldn’t pick up my boys or lift anything heavy. I had not prepared for that. I hadn’t stocked up on food at the grocery store in preparation. I hadn’t planned ahead for anything because in my head it had been no big deal. This was the picture we sent the boys that first night. I didn’t want them to freak out or worry so I put on a happy face.
But I really felt more like this. I couldn’t sleep on my side because the tape pulled so much. It was hard to get out of bed without my neck muscles pulling. I rolled in to Thanksgiving dinner with no makeup on and 2 day old dirty hair (which I don’t do – it is NOT cute on me). I put clothes on but I would have much rather stayed in my pajamas. That night I could take the dressing off for the first time and finally got my shower. I broke down again when I saw the stitches. I just wasn’t prepared. For any of this. The next day I was in a good deal of pain and managed it with over the counter meds. My family helped me with the kids and I sat. WARNING: ANOTHER PICTURE OF THE STITCHES COMING UP!
Each day got a little easier. But I had to wear this gigantic dressing. I got a lot of looks. The tape was still pulling on my skin. It was hard to tell if the stitches hurt or if it was the tape. So I was extra cautious and held my head in odd positions to baby my neck. I ended up super stiff and with headaches. So lame. And I became depressed. Self diagnosed, but still counts I think. I didn’t want to go anywhere, I didn’t want to see anyone. All the sudden it had become a pretty big deal but most people didn’t even know about it. How do you ask for help or support when no one knows you need it? It really wasn’t a big deal. The cancer can grow but not really spread to anywhere. It is highly curable. So I was conflicted. I chose to spend a lot of time in bed. I left only when I had to.
The tape made my skin so angry. I hated that part more than anything. The day that I got the stitches out I was a wreck. I think I started crying before they even did anything. It wasn’t really that bad but it didn’t matter. I’m sure the office staff still talks about me.
The doctor liked how the scar was looking so he put something called a steri strip on it. They glued it to my skin and it would fall off on its own in 1-3 weeks. When it fell off, I was to go back to the dressings again. I did everything I could to make sure that steri strip stayed on so I didn’t have to put that awful tape back on. It stayed on until my follow-up appointment about 3 weeks later. They removed it and were very pleased with the progress. They told me I didn’t need to use dressings any more. That was a dream come true. I was okayed to exercise. Eff that.
I am so grateful for my family for taking such good care of me. My husband was a trooper and was so strong. He comforted me, he let me sulk, he handled the boys. I really couldn’t have done it without him. A very dear friend, Kayla, was a rock for me. She let me cry, she always knew what to say and she would just send me texts letting me know she was there for me. But I also thank those people who would have been there for me had they known. I know there are many more people who would have dropped everything to help me if I had given them the chance. My head was just so jumbled. I was in a pretty dark place for those couple of weeks. Then I got a pathology report in the mail about another mole I had had biopsied. I called and they told me to make an appointment to see the doctor.
I saw my regular dermatologist in early December. The biopsy showed that there were some minor abnormalities but they didn’t need to take any further action at this time. That is the second one like that on my back. But I finally felt like I knew what questions to ask about how we will handle these and other moles going forward. I learned things I hadn’t known about skin cancer and I feel really good in his care. I feel like we have a plan and I have to rely on that. I can’t say that I’m not worried about finding more or other types of skin cancer. But I am a little more versed in it now. This day was a turning point in my depression. I felt like I wasn’t in the dark anymore. In fact, I am scheduled to have something on my face (a purple mole that looks like my kid drew it on me with marker) removed in February that was supposed to need “just a few stitches.” I’ve convinced him to take it like the others. It may not even be the stitches that were really the problem in the case of my skin cancer. But I certainly found out I’m pretty much a sissy when it comes to medical procedures. And I will just take each biopsy as it comes and not worry for no reason.
This is how the scar looked on Christmas. It hurts every once in a while. A lot of sweaters rub right there so I constantly tug at them. But I feel good. Everything we go through is an experience. I think we go through life trying to be so stoic and act as if we are unflappable. But we are all vulnerable. It is okay to be scared of things that others are not. It is okay to call your friends up out of the blue and tell them you need them. And it is okay to spend lots of time at home in your pajamas watching Bravo if that is what you need to do. The scar is still kind of red and little puffy on one side. I have one more follow-up appointment in February which may include a shot of cortisone. Shots I can take. People don’t really ask me about the scar. I sort of wish someone would. I’ve concocted an amazing story about a back alley knife fight.
P.S. If anyone needs a dermatologist recommendation I will happily share. Just email me!
Just FYI: I’ve updated this post here. See how my scars have healed!