NOW READING What It’s Like When “It Can’t Happen to Me” Does: My Skin Cancer Story
July 25, 2018

What It’s Like When “It Can’t Happen to Me” Does: My Skin Cancer Story

One skincare enthusiast (and former sun worshipper) shares her skin cancer journey, and why it took so long for her to stop ignoring that pesky little mole.


 

Growing up in Southern California has been both blessing and bane. We have beautiful weather year-round, gorgeous beaches, and a population still worshipping the sun despite every piece of literature telling them it’s time to change. I was one of those creatures — a bleached blonde, deeply tanned, California kid/teenager/woman.

 

The conventional wisdom here in the ’70s and ’80s was that a tan was a good thing. “Get out there and get that first sunburn out of the way” was something even my husband was told when he was a kid. So … that’s what we did.

 

Older Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Wiser

 

My 20s and 30s weren’t much different. I maintained a golden tan year-round thanks to tanning beds on every corner. Hell, I even used melanin-stimulating tanning accelerators to get my money’s worth. The fact that a family friend my own age died at 24 in 1990 due to skin cancer didn’t even faze me, but when I hit my 40s, everything changed. Not because I was worried about skin damage or cancer. Nope. I just had a new tattoo that I didn’t want to fade, so I began wearing SPF … 8.

 

skin cancer
Unsplash/Brian Mann

 

In 2015, I embraced AB skincare (thanks to Kerry Thompson and Coco Park’s Korean Beauty Secrets) but still pushed back against sunscreen. I’d had a few insignificant moles removed over the years. Nothing major. Nothing requiring so much as a stitch, so sun protection seemed irrelevant.

 

Ignoring the Warning Signs

 

Part of my job includes writing for doctors of all types. One of my clients, a cancer specialist, sent me images along with his articles, and in 2017 I finally started to get a clue:

 

  • Moles don’t itch.
  • Healthy moles do not change shape.
  • Non-cancerous moles do not weep, scab over, and break open again.
  • Moles don’t suddenly develop craters in the middle.

 

Every sign pointed to a long-ignored cancerous lesion hovering over my carotid artery, but it wasn’t until I brought my husband, a cancer survivor himself, to tears while flippantly saying, “I know it’s cancer,” that it really hit home. “If he’s that worried,” I thought, “I’ll just go see what the derm thinks and pick up some Retin-A while I’m at it.”

 

Armed with the fear that my husband had been holding in, I forced myself to make a skin check appointment, but it wasn’t until the physician’s assistant injected that first syringe of anesthetic into my neck that things became real. “It looks like basal cell carcinoma. It’s treatable and very common. Let’s do a biopsy to be sure.”

 

skin cancer
That hole above the stitches — that’s cancer (not part of the biopsy.

 

The original mole was about the size of a pencil eraser, so the biopsy only needed a couple stitches. Baby Band-Aid. No big deal, but two days later, they scheduled me for surgery … on Memorial Day. What the hell? Why the rush?

 

Cancer Doesn’t Take a Holiday

 

When it came time to remove this reckless proof of my negligence and cavalier attitude, Roy was in the room with me once more. What I thought would take just a few minutes took 45 — and 22 stitches. Mr. Fussy Mole was apparently taking up residence deep below the epidermis, which meant the surgical incision would extend far beyond my expectations. I had what is called an elliptical excision surgery, which means my PA removed the entire mole and a great deal of surrounding and underlying tissue with a scalpel in one large, football-shaped chunk. We’re talking inches, friends, not millimeters.

 

They bandaged my neck so heavily, you’d think I’d survived a near decapitation. “This is excessive,” I thought to myself. Roy kept saying, “Your incision is THIS big,” holding his fingers apart as if he were holding a martini glass. I went to bed that night still thinking, “He’s exaggerating.” He wasn’t.

 

When we removed the surgical bandage the next morning, I lost my legs. He hadn’t been kidding. Jack Skellington’s mouth was on my neck along with an angry, irritated, weeping wound that seemed hellbent on healing badly.

 

skin cancer
One week post-op (and none too happy).

 

Remember the Titanic?

 

In my bravado, I convinced myself that removing the mole would be simple. Just a couple snips and a little white dot where once Mr. Fussy had lived. But that mole was just the tip of the iceberg. What was visible to the naked eye was only the beginning. The underlying tissue was cancerous … so the incision was three inches (76 millimeters) wide.

 

“The Margins Are Clear”

 

Waiting for the “all clear” was the hardest part. The “all clear” came 72 hours later, and a follow-up ultrasound confirmed the cancer was gone. I wish I could say I was relieved, but what I mostly felt was embarrassment and stupidity. Here I was doing a full 10-step AB routine daily while enjoying the most beautiful skin of my entire life at 50, and I had this nasty f—ing wound that I couldn’t hide under a turtleneck and had to face every time I looked in the mirror. How did I let myself get here?

 

skin cancer
Fabulous DearPacker Black Tea & Black Rose Hydrogel Mask and the scar’s first cameo.

 

Learning to Own It

 

Regrets are something we all have in spades. They’re useless, but, nonetheless, we carry them like luggage. In the past 13 months, I’ve lived the well-slathered, well-informed life of a woman who knows that the sins of her past will come back to haunt her. Even though I barely venture outside, I now wear sunscreen on my upper body daily because I sit next to a sunny window that lets in the fresh mountain air. My top picks include:

 

A’Pieu Pure Block Aqua Sun Gel SPF50 PA+++ (fast drying; smells like citrus)

 

Nivea Sun Protect Super Water Gel SPF50 PA+++ (fast drying; clear finish)

 

Shiseido Senka Aging Care UV Sunscreen SPF50+ PA++++ (winter fave; ultra-moisturizing)

 

A’Pieu Pure Block Natural Sun Cream  SPF45 PA+++ (no alcohol here; moisturizing but still nearly weightless)

 

skin cancer

 

As for the scar, it’s still ugly AF, but it’s less obvious thanks to tretinoin, vitamin C, and Honey Shark from Holy Snails. I also don’t hide it or cover it with makeup. In fact, I pull my hair over my other shoulder, which leaves it perpetually exposed and ready to talk about. Sadly, no one ever asks, and my “righteous sunscreen accident” retort has remained unuttered but at the ready. Maybe it’s just a California thing or the fact that we live near a beautiful lake, but outside the AB community, old ways die hard. Please don’t let them take you along with them.

 

P.S. Please don’t forget your piggies! I’ve since had my favorite pinky toe “freckle” removed, plus a few others. Trust me, your diligence is worth it!

 

Have you ever had a skin cancer scare? Share you story with us and help spread the word about sun protection!

 

All photos courtesy of the author.

 

 

Tracy is a "quality over quantity" word girl fascinated by eagles and life in a small SoCal mountain community. She believes in the now, has written professionally for 30+ years, and worships at the alters of serum and Sulwhasoo.

Beautytap

COMMENTS 19

seoyerim

Thank you very much for sharing! I'm glad that you're cancer-free! I always tell my friends to put on sunscreen. Thank you for the recommendations as well! I can't wait to try one of them! 😊

jane0elaine

I am waiting for the results of a biopsy as we speak. Phew!

Is it odd that I love your scar? I think there's something awesome about unusual body things we learn to wear like jewelry. I'm so glad you're cancer-free and I think it's great you're willing to share your story.

tracyannteel

Jane, I am keeping you in my thoughts! Waiting for results can take a toll on you, so reach out again if there\'s anything I can do to help make the wait more tolerable. I like your interpretation of a scar as \"jewelry.\" I\'ve never attempted to hide mine because, sometimes, the best way to make a difference in the world is to wear your flaws for all to see. I hope you\'ll update us on your results. My fingers are crossed for you! Hugs and hope!

jane0elaine

Thank you so much. <3 I will keep you posted.

foom23

Thank you for sharing your story and scar with us. Glad that you are cancer free! 💙

When I was a kid I was once sunburned so badly I had second degree burns, one across the bridge of my nose. I am now 46 and still have scarring from that incident. The sun is serious business!

tracyannteel

Thank you so much for your kind words. I can't imagine the pain you went through with a second degree burn, but I do understand how the scars we carry shape us as people. I'm so sad to hear you're still living with yours, but in time we make peace with them and use them to make us stronger. P.S. I love your kitty pic! Take care!

Jude Chao

This is SO INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. Sunscreen isn't just a vanity thing--it can mean the difference between life and death! Thank you for sharing this, Tracy!!

tracyannteel

It's sad that it takes something this dramatic to change a person, but I hope others heed the warning early. I can't thank you enough for all the sunscreen recommendations...especially this one that came out right after my surgery: https://beautytap.com/2017/06/sunscreen-apieu-pure-block/

"Regrets are something we all have in spades. They’re useless, but, nonetheless, we carry them like luggage. In the past 13 months, I’ve lived the well-slathered, well-informed life of a woman who knows that the sins of her past will come back to haunt her. " This is beautifully written and really stuck with me. Thank you for being so open and sharing this experience. I too am guilty of not being diligent enough with sunscreen both in my pre AB days and even during my early AB days when I hadn't found the right sunscreen. It is so... Read more

mariposa

Yes, this is beautifully written! I'm bookmarking it to reread whenever I'm tempted to slack off on applying sunscreen. :)

I never used to bother with daily sunscreen -- only put it on if I was actually going to be out in direct sunlight for hours, like at the beach. I'm sure I got plenty of incidental exposure, though...

tracyannteel

Thank you! I never would've thought I'd be applying sunscreen just to go to the grocery store, but I am. :)

tracyannteel

Thank you so much! While I may have learned the hard way, at least I learned, and hopefully others will, too. I highly recommend a yearly derm visit. They even have a camera (MelaFind) that can gauge the likelihood of a mole being cancerous, so a biopsy/excision isn't always necessary.

jacmakeup

Thank you for sharing your story, I am so happy the story had a happy ending of a full recovery! I'm off to go bathe in SPF 50 in a windowless room now. :)

leolouie

I really appreciate you taking the time to share the experience that you had. I first advice to my friends when they ask about skincare is to wear sunscreen every day they're outside/exposed to sunlight and no one ever seems to take it seriously at first, but it goes way beyond just a vanity/premature wrinkles thing. So glad that everything turned out for the better! I love the Skin Aqua Moisture Gel, feels super similar to the Nivea but it's PA++++ :)

tracyannteel

Oh, PA++++. Checking that out right now. Thanks! :)

annapark

Thanks so much for sharing tracyannteel. And wow, you look like a kid in that sheet mask photo! Your skin really is amazing!

I shudder when I think of all those times I used to lay out in the sun with baby oil to try to get a tan. I reaped the consequences when I started getting large sunspots on my face starting in my mid-20s. Thankfully, a diligent skincare routine has helped keep the spots under control, but they\'ll never fully go away. My mom avoided the sun like the plague her whole life and she... Read more

jacmakeup

My mom thankfully told me to ALWAYS wear sunscreen, at the very least on my face! She now lives in Florida and loves to hear about my new facial sunscreen suggestions. she's 68 but looks much younger, thanks to following her own advice.

tracyannteel

Way to go, Mom! I'm so glad you followed her advice. You're definitely ahead of the curve.

tracyannteel

Thank you for the compliment, Anna. You made my day!

I shudder thinking about a fiberglass tanning lounge I had in my teens. It was called a "cool tan." I filled it with water and sunbathed in it. The thing was death on wheels.

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