I was 23 the first time I noticed a suspicious spot on my forehead. Given my sun-loving history, I wasn’t entirely surprised that something had popped up.
What did surprise me was how long it took before a doctor took my burgeoning basal cell carcinoma seriously. Because of my age and the fact that basal cell carcinomas are slow-growing and typically reserved for “old people,” doctors took a more complacent “let’s watch and wait” approach to my concerns.
So, we watched and waited… and watched and waited for six more years. Six years of freezing the spot off and waiting for it to come back. Six years of being told again and again by different doctors that it wasn’t worth getting biopsied yet — that I was “so young!”
At 29, I was tired of the runaround, and my doctor finally biopsied the spot. Just as expected: cancer.
A week later, I went through my first Mohs surgery.
Truthfully, I didn’t think too much about my first experience because I was distracted by my husband’s.
The same day I finally got my spot biopsied, my husband went in for his first-ever skin check and came out with a biopsy of his own. His result was a lot scarier than mine — in situ melanoma, or stage 0 melanoma. While this form of melanoma is still highly curable, it was a sobering discovery. What if he hadn’t gotten checked? What if we hadn’t insisted on the biopsy? His outcome could have been so much worse. My “minor” basal cell carcinoma paled in comparison.
I missed my next skin check because of a move, but after a year and a half I went back and was prepared for another biopsy, this time on my neck.
Sure enough, a second basal cell carcinoma was identified.
Maybe it was because the doctor didn’t catch the spot during her skin check (I had to point it out); maybe it was because the resulting Mohs surgery ended in a botched stitch removal and several more trips to the doctor; or maybe it was because this time I realized I wasn’t a one-and-done skin cancer survivor (my body had turned me into a repeat offender), but whatever it was, the second skin cancer affected me differently. I was suddenly staring down the barrel of a very long, long gun. A gun that said:
“You have to worry about every new skin change.”
“Keep an eye on those previous cancer spots — if they come back, it’s a sign you’re at risk for more aggressive and dangerous forms of basal or squamous cell carcinoma.”
“You have to prioritize skin checks — self-checks and doctor’s visits — and you have to make sure your husband does, too.”
“You have to question every doctor and insist on early diagnosis and treatment.”
“You’re now at greater risk for melanoma.”
“Don’t forget your sunscreen, even once! You’ve already had too much sun damage.”
The effects of sun damage suddenly became real. Having cancer once seemed like a warning, a slap on the wrist. Having more than one? It hit me that I’ll be fighting skin cancer my whole life. At 33 years old, that means (hopefully) more than 50 years of remaining on high alert when it comes to my skin.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a small price to pay when compared to the trials faced by those diagnosed with much scarier and deadly cancers than mine. But, it’s still a side of “minor” skin cancers, like basal cell carcinoma, that’s rarely discussed.
Case in point: Just a few weeks ago, I went in for my annual skin check with concerns about a spot on my nose. My doctor said, “It could be something or it could be absolutely nothing. With your history, I’ll leave the decision to biopsy it up to you.” I chose the biopsy.
Luckily, it came back negative (my first-ever negative biopsy — yay!), but I didn’t come away unscathed. I now bear the stamp of a small scar on the tip of my nose, a reminder every time I look in the mirror that the lingering effects of past cancers, regardless of severity, leave a mark — mental and physical — on those affected.