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.
Getting Up Close, Personal and Too Comfortable
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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.
- Wear hats and UPF clothing that covers your arms and legs
- 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.
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.