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NOW READING Why Ignoring That Tiny Freckle Could Be Deadly – A Skin Cancer Survivor Reveals Her Story
June 14, 2021

Why Ignoring That Tiny Freckle Could Be Deadly – A Skin Cancer Survivor Reveals Her Story

Raising awareness and sharing our experiences can help save other lives.


 

When thinking about cancer, most people rarely give it a thought until it touches them or someone they love directly. Before that awareness occurs, skin cancer is invisible, theoretical, and a scare tactic advertisers use to prevent young people from tanning outdoors or indoors without sunscreen. In 2017, my own bout with basal cell carcinoma (BCC) – the friendliest, or at least most curable form of skin cancer – revealed that not only is sunscreen worth applying but that cancer is patient. Spoiler: What you do today might not be of much consequence now, but it may find you down the road and can be deadly.

 

Regular doctor visits and self-checks are essential for early detection of skin cancer.

 

Getting Up Close, Personal and Too Comfortable

 

skin cancer survivor
Basal cell carcinoma post-surgery 2017 – pretty, huh? / All photos in this editorial are courtesy of Tracy Teel.

After my BCC surgery, I became a pro at performing my own skin checks and faithfully dropping skivvies for my physician’s assistant, Claudia at yearly follow-up appointments. After multiple biopsies on most of my toes and other public and private parts, as well as the associated suture removal procedures (and the 14 days in between where my brain went completely batty), I remained cancer-free … for slightly more than two years.

tracyteel, skin cancer survivor
During a full-body skin check, your dermatologist literally maps every marking on your body from head to toe.

 

In August 2019, the “snakebite” mole twins we’d “watched” in 2017 and scanned with the MelaFind in 2018 looked distressingly more ominous to Claudia when viewed through her DermLite dermatoscope. “I don’t like this one,” she said, “it’s coming off.”

 

Pre-biopsy photo – mole is smaller than the tip of a cotton swab, uniformly dark, and flat

 

Since my PA did a punch biopsy on one mole but left the other behind, I didn’t worry until her office called to schedule an immediate appointment WITHOUT giving me my results over the phone. Alarm bells went off. 

 

Spoiler: It’s rare that they’ll share those dreaded words, “you have cancer” over the phone.

 

As I sat waiting in that cold, familiar room the next afternoon with a tri-fold brochure from the information rack in my hand, the words MALIGNANT MELANOMA facing outward, Claudia entered, nodded, and my worst fears were cemented.

 

Patient Referral to General Oncology Surgery ***STAT***

 

After a biopsy, a pathology lab reports the findings back to your doctor. My 5mm punch biopsy report included the words, “Malignant melanoma with extension to the papillary dermis, Clark’s Level II,” “atypical,” and “abundant,” but seeing this sentence was where real became really scary: “cells within the nests have lost cohesion.” 

 

I learned from Claudia and more than a little research that Clark’s staging measures the depth of the melanoma. In my case, the biopsy showed that the cancer had spread vertically beyond the upper layer of the skin (the epidermis) into the papillary dermis (top of the dermis). “Not too bad,” said my brain. “Stage two out of a possible five.” 

 

But here’s something you should know – the Clark staging method, while still commonly utilized by pathology testing facilities is outdated. The American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) staging system is the most current method of staging skin cancer. In people-speak, AJCC considers the “tumor, node, metastasis (TMN) scores and other prognostic factors” when assigning a stage. 

 

Wide Awake with K-Pop In the Background

 

Nine days after meeting with an oncological surgeon at City of Hope, I was scheduled for a wide local excision under local sedation. Most patients prefer general sedation because they’re asleep during the procedure, but I opted to remain awake because I’m stubborn and cheap and didn’t want to hire a private driver or burden a friend with chauffeuring me around since my husband can no longer drive due to MS. FYI: Go with the general! Anesthetizing more than a half-inch below the skin’s surface requires a truckload of drugs, and it hurt worse than anything I’ve experienced in my entire life.

 

Why is this bandage so big?

 

A 45-Minute Procedure Turned Into 90-Minutes

 

Once the anesthesia kicked in, the team and I had a delightful conversation about BTS, BLACKPINK, and EXO. This is the only upside to being awake during surgery; they let you pick the music. As my surgeon worked, the scope of the surgery changed slightly, requiring deeper tissue removal, which is why I now have a small depression in the center of my scar. My leg was crazy numb (thankfully), and I had a prescription for hydrocodone (Norco), which I took until the bottle was empty. I was in pain for a solid week!

 

Even Sandy looks frightened by the aftermath!

 

Remain Vigilant And Practice Preventative Measures

 

Once you’ve been diagnosed with melanoma, you need frequent follow-up checks. I now see Claudia every 90 days and must do so through October 2022. For the three years after that (October 2025), I’ll still need to have a skin check every six months. 

 

Since the day of the surgery, I’ve had 15 additional biopsies and two minor excision surgeries after a few biopsies came back pre-melanoma, and all cells were deemed atypical but with clear margins around them. Hearing those two words – “clear margins” – feels (I imagine) like being blessed by the pope. 

 

With every breath I take, I want you to avoid this menacing process. You can do that by:

 

  • Wearing sunscreen every day, even indoors, since UVA light penetrates glass and reapply every two hours. 

 

 

  • Avoid tanning beds at all costs.

 

  • Start looking at your skin on a microscopic level – all of it – even between your toes, behind your ears, your scalp, in your eyes, your mouth, and ask someone you love to probe those hard-to-reach places (yes, including the nether regions).

 

Highly Effective Scar and Skin Healers

 

After experimenting with many products, a few of them ended up being saviors for my biopsied skin; may you never need to use them to help heal a melanoma scar. If anything, they’re worth considering for your daily skincare arsenal or to help speed up recovery of any current scars.  

 

tracy teel skin cancer survivor
The truth today – 18 months post-surgery

 

I passionately believe that using COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence, PURITO Centella Green Level Buffet Serum, vitamin C serum, and Eco Your Skin’s Meso Ampoule have left my slightly disfigured calf in far better condition than any OTC or prescription anti-scar product ever would. 

 

Thank you for taking time to read my story. If you have questions, please leave a comment or follow me on either of my Beautytap profiles. Visit the American Cancer Society’s page to see images of different types of skin cancer, and make a skin check appointment no matter what condition your skin is in – even the most benign-looking, tiny spot can be deadly. 

Tracy Ann Teel is a full-time freelance writer and the owner of Finesse Writing and Editing LLC. She’s a tutorial writer for San Francisco Globe’s beauty platform, FierceLeague.com, covering everything from skin and hair care to makeup and nail art. She writes for skincare companies, dermatologists, and cosmetic surgeons, and proudly taught at her MFA alma mater, the University of California Irvine, as a member of their adjunct faculty in English. She’s been a textbook reviewer for Prentice Hall, been recognized three consecutive years in the Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, and has written professionally for 30+ years. Her poetry chapbook Such Dust was published by Finishing Line Press, and her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Rattle, Pearl, Kaleidoscope, and Lake Arrowhead Life.

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COMMENTS 8

meghan


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

Thank you for sharing your story. It is very scary and am glad you are doing well. With skin cancer becoming more prevalent, we appreciate you!!


tracyteel


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

Thank you, Meghan. Finding a sunscreen that you love and will wear faithfully is a bit like finding a unicorn. I'm thankful to have so many favorites now and wouldn't dream of going anywhere without wearing it.

elyciarubin

We all need to be vigilant - all ages, skin types, ethnicities, and skin tones . No one is immune from skin cancer. Wear that sunscreen, cover up and check those nether regions!


tracyteel


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

Yep! I honestly get anxious when I'm out in the sun and am due to reapply. Not a day goes by that I don't wear SPF. Better late than never.

miramiraspa


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

I appreciate you sharing your story. Skin cancer is so scary and good information needs to be spread to the masses.


tracyteel


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

I've appointed myself to the post of Skin Cancer Poster Girl. I don't hide my scars, and I'm honestly amazed that no one asks about them. They're instant talking points, and I'd love to see sunscreen ads on billboards some day. We have the information; we just need to live by it and share it with one another.

gretchellpaltao

Thanks for sharing your story Tracy!


tracyteel


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

This is my personal mission, Gretchell. :)