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.
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.”
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.
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?
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)
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.