Tag Archives: skin cancer

My cancer will probably come back

I can’t lie to myself anymore.

I can’t live like I’m invincible and continue to eat, drink and party with no thought of responsibility or accountability. I should probably calm down my YOLO lifestyle. It’s true I will only live once, especially in New York City, but instead of adopting this mantra as permission to make poor decisions, I’ll need to use it as a reminder to watch my back.

Literally, I need to watch my back.

A four-inch scar now marks the spot on my right shoulder where my skin cancer once lived. Like a cow that’s been branded, I too was cauterized and sewn up following Mohs surgery to remove the Basal Cell Carcinoma. I am in no danger of dying and I never was.

Under the umbrella and a sweater -- you can never be too covered.
Under the umbrella and a sweater — you can never be too covered.

Recovery has been painful, but not debilitating. For the first week, I felt the sore when I walked, when I washed my hair and when I cut vegetables. It was a constant reminder – so much so that I eventually started hugging my arm to my torso to minimize the swinging and swaying.

This pause on my active lifestyle has me thinking about what happens next. The worst part of my cancer diagnosis, surgery and recovery so far has been that I haven’t been able to do yoga. Woe is me. But while I feel unworthy of sympathy, I also feel scared as hell.

Two days before my surgery, I learned a girl from my high school had died of cancer. I found out later it the cancer was melanoma, which is the most aggressive form of skin cancer. She was 29 – my age.

When I first visited my dermatologist he was more concerned with a dark mole on my lower back than he was about the seeping, open wound on my shoulder. He feared it could be melanoma. The results came back negative thank God, but that mole is just one of what must be thousands that freckle my body. Now I live in fear that this army of black speckles will one day take a turn. Could they possibly mutiny into melanoma? The answer is yes.

As a teenager I stayed out in the sun all day and religiously used tanning beds as part of my beauty regimen. This summer, however, I was a gold-star dermatological patient; I applied and re-applied SPF, kept my clothes on for the most part and spent prime sun time underneath the umbrella. But, the damage has been done. While observing me under the UV lights, both my dermatologist and my surgeon have commented something along the lines of, “You were a sun worshipper when you were younger, weren’t you?”

I’ve cheated death once and I feel like I won’t be able to do it again.

So, I’ve started to research how to prevent my cancer from coming back. What I’ve found is essentially the same advice I’ve been reading in women’s magazines since I was a teenager: Stay out of the sun, eat more fruits and vegetables while limiting red meat and processed food. The American Cancer Society says I can try to stave off a recurrence by exercising and limiting alcohol. As a twenty-something who exercises five times per week, eats mainly salads and only drinks on weekends all these suggestions tell me one thing. There’s nothing I can do.

I’m a cancer survivor and now my chances of it coming back are increased. What’s more is that cancer runs in my family. Both my mom and my paternal aunt are breast cancer survivors and my sister survived thyroid cancer. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to do my best. I’m not overweight, I don’t smoke, I eat as cleanly as possible and now I’ve also abandoned my yolo-ing ways of binge drinking and sun worshipping.

The day of my surgery the doctor’s assistant held up a mirror so I could see my newly-sutured scar. Shocked by the size of it, I said, “I’m going to be hideous!”

“You’re going to be alive,” she replied.

It’s true – I’m alive and am doing my part to stay that way. I can only hope my body returns the favor.

I Don’t Know If I Deserve Your Sympathy for my cancer

In my mind, my mortality was never really in question.

The loss of my hair and the scarring of my shoulder – those were at the forefront. I have very superficial concerns for what I consider to be my very superficial cancer: Basal Cell Carcinoma.

“You will be fine,” my dermatologist repeated twice, adding that I have “the best skin cancer you could want.”

I already knew that I would be fine. After all, I’m not the first one in my world to suffer from cancer and survive.

In 2006, I watched from the sidelines as breast cancer ravaged my mom’s body. Not only were her breasts torn apart, reddened and disfigured, but her whole body was transmuted. She lost her sense of smell. She lost the ability to enjoy food, which was poisoned by the radiation treatments that left a distinct after taste of metal in her mouth. Once, I caught a glimpse of her in the garden wearing a baseball hat that shielded her barren head from the sun. She was a middle-aged woman, but I had mistaken her for a pre-teen boy. This figure who had always been larger than life to me was suddenly, inexplicitly diminutive. I cried.

Some time later my sister’s gynecologist found a lump in her throat during a routine check-up. Tests revealed it was what they had feared: Thyroid cancer. Suddenly my beautiful, newlywed sister was tainted by a cancer mass. She would “be fine,” she told me. Her assertions didn’t stop the tears I shed when I was alone and had the time to think of life without her.

No one shed a tear for me when I was diagnosed with cancer.
I know this is true because my cancer is not attempting to kill me. It’s not quietly advancing through my blood and bones. It isn’t wreaking havoc on my endocrine system or latching onto my lymph nodes. No, my skin cancer is neatly tucked where it’s always been – living on my shoulder like a parrot who repeats backs to me as I look myself in the mirror: “You did this to yourself. You did this to yourself. You did this to yourself.”

My sore and I have been living together for the better part of two years. I call it a sore because that’s what it looks like – a shallow, superficial scab that won’t heal and has become engrained in my physique just as much as my freckles. My sore arrived around the same time I moved to Manhattan. I ignored it for the most part, dismissing it as an agitation that was caused by friction from my purse strap.

The trouble was that it wouldn’t heal. Instead, it would scab over and then a little time later it would bleed again. I made small efforts to slather it with Neosporin and bandage it, but for the most part I ignored what I had done to myself.

And, I had done it to myself. Years of lying out by the pool and beach had exacerbated what I am certain truly caused my skin cancer – the years I spent baking in a sunless tanning booth. I’m of Welsh and German descent and am naturally very pale. Every year I would strive to reach what I considered to be a more healthy and lively skin tone, but each year I would just capture more and more freckles and moles.

“This is from the sun,” my dermatologist repeated time and again. Yes, I’m aware. I’m aware of the times I spent tingling and crawling in my own skin from over exposure. I remember the bright red puffiness of my stomach and legs. I remember taking delight in peeling off the sheets of dead skin from the damaged areas.

I may be genetically predisposed, but the truth is I aided and embedded my skin cancer. Every summer I sent cancer an invitation into my life and at 29 years-old, it finally RSVP’d.

I don’t deserve anyone’s sympathy. I’m not dying and I did this to myself. My treatment will consist of this: I will have Mohs surgery where a cosmetic surgeon will strip off my skin layer-by-layer until the examined pieces are cleared of cancerous cells. Then, I will be stitched up and prohibited from running or doing yoga for one month so as not to agitate the sutures.

I won’t have to sit in a hospital room with other cancer patients and be drip fed a treatment that destroys other parts of my body. I won’t be shocked by radiation that will tinge my sense of smell and remove the pleasure of taste.

But, just because my cancer will be dismissed in a surgery that is no more invasive than when I had my tonsils and wisdom teeth extracted doesn’t mean I don’t want pity. I may not deserve it, but I want it. Having cancer – or being a “cancer survivor” – which I am not yet, opens up the door to another level of attention. I’m ashamed to admit that I knew right away I would revel in the attention my diagnosis would receive. Once you’re in the cancer club, you’re always in it. I looked forward to the pity. I looked forward to the reactions of my friends and family.

“What? Hannah! No!” said one friend. “That word alone is so scary.” Some squirmed in their seats or rested their heads in their hands not knowing what to say to me. I understood; I had been there once. I had at one time not known what it felt like to be betrayed by my own body.
Yes, I enjoy the pity. I embrace the attention. But when I revealed my diagnosis on Facebook I knew I was undeserving of it once the responses started rolling in.

“My dad passed away from Melanoma two years ago on Father’s Day. You can imagine my thoughts about this topic,” wrote one friend. Said another, “A very good friend of mine just turned 40 earlier this month and due to skin cancer, it will more than likely be her last birthday. She is a wife and a mom of two, including a 16 month-old baby. She was diagnosed with melanoma two weeks after her second son was born and is now fighting to live each day. Skin cancer is no joke.” I will be fine; I reassured them, as I took pure joy in the support their reactions reflected back on me. Conversely, when I told my boss my cancer diagnosis and that I would, regrettably, be missing time from work to undergo surgery, she dismissed it. “Oh, you’ll be fine,” she said. I felt belittled. I felt unjustified.

But, she’s right. I will be fine – for now. One day my moles might betray me and turn into melanoma. But, until then I will be fine, as my boss said. I will be fine, as my dermatologist said. I will be fine, as I continue to tell myself. Until one of my moles betrays me – or doesn’t – I will continue to dye my hair blonde because there’s no threat of it falling out from chemotherapy treatments. Until that happens, I will forget about the inconvenience of suspending my yoga practice for one month. Until that happens, I will grow used to the sizeable scar on my shoulder that will remind me: I did this to myself.

I have cancer, and the doctor says it’s my fault

I have cancer. What’s worse; there is no doubt I gave it to myself. Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most prevalent skin cancer in the U.S.; three in 10 Americans will be diagnosed with it in their lifetime. I anticipate that number will likely grow considering my generation’s goal to “always be bronzing.”

My thirst for a perennial glow was insatiable as a teenager. I’m of Welsh and German descent and am naturally quite fair skinned. Casper the Friendly Ghost could be my kin. But, now I’m spotted with freckles and moles from the innumerable sunbathing sessions that left my skin burned and blistered. When it peeled I would take sweet, sadistic pleasure in pulling off the sheets of dead skin.

Winter? Dash – my first job was a booth babe at a second rate hair and tanning salon. I would bake myself in the 20 minute booths and didn’t stop even when my body cried out in tingles and redness.

Fifteen years later and at 29 years-old I find myself in a dermatologist’s exam room being handed the Cancer Club card.

I will be fine, the doctor says. One surgery here and some check-ups there; I will live to bronze another day. But, because I am young it will likely be back.

One would think that Americans have been educated enough to stop burning themselves in the quest to achieve the perfect tan. But, I’m not so sure. Years ago I lost my lust for the sun when I realized wrinkles were a real threat. Vanity drives most measures, I’ve found. Now I’m of a small minority of my friend group who wears and reapplies sunscreen. Forget asking them to cover up or join me underneath the umbrella.

I may be on the lowest end of the fair complexion spectrum, but sun worshippers of all ethnicities need to take note of the damage caused by excessive exposure. Don’t put yourself through the agony of what the Cancer club could mean – sickness, hair loss, and even death.

Reduce your risk and follow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recommendations. In case you’ve forgotten: Use sunscreen SPF 15+ and reapply often, limit time in the sun, especially when the rays are most intense between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and wear clothing that covers exposed skin. After hearing my tale, several friends have scheduled appointments to be checked. Don’t wait for a loved one to suffer my fate, take it from me and protect yourself.