I was recently diagnosed with skin cancer, and since May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, I’d like to share my story with you – actually it’s my grandmother’s story as much as it is my story.
When I was about six years old, my grandmother, Dorothy, found a small scrape on the bridge of her nose. Several weeks passed, then several months and it didn’t heal. In fact, it began to look inflamed and appear to grow. After several months of this scrape looking worse and worse, she finally visited a doctor and was diagnosed with basil cell skin cancer.
Just months before my grandmother was diagnosed, a dear family-friend was also diagnosed, and chose to begin immediate treatment. This was the mid-seventies so the treatments were, by today’s standards, archaic. The treatment was worse than the disease, painful, long, often leaving burns. It all turned out to be more than our family-friend could bare, and she sadly took her own life. This had a profound impact on my grandmother, and as a result she refused to undergo treatment for her skin cancer. As time went on, what started as a small scrape grew – it became red, and took the appearance of an infected wound. She began to cover it with a bandage, partially to keep the wound clean an partially to protect the rest of her family from seeing the severity of the disease as it been to consume her nose. After a time, the bridge of her nose disappeared, the sides, even the nostrils, until all that remained was the small piece between the nostrils (the Columella). By this point, a bandage would not cover the damage, so my grandmother began to use a large white gauze pad and strips of tape. Going out in public was hell for her, the looks, the whispers, the stares. I can only imagine how she felt to have people look at her the way they did.
I remember vividly the day she lost the last bit of her nose, it was as if the battle was over. She seemed saddened, yet somehow relieved, like the battle was over. I later found a small note she had written to no one in particular, that said “good-bye nose, good-bye”. Some time later, while the disease continued to spread, she finally relented ad went to a doctor, who outlined a treatment program for her that was nothing like she expected, easy, pain-free, and most importantly – effective. Within a very short time, they completely stopped the growth. If she had sought treatment earlier, she may had been able to save her nose and avoid a suffering I can’t imagine.
In a sad turn of fate, within months of the basal cell being stopped, she noticed a small growth on her jaw. It looked like a pimple, but had doubled in size within only a matter of days. This time, she took rapid action, and saw her doctor. They diagnosed it as Squamis cell skin cancer and outlined a treatment option, that was more aggressive, and that frightened her. So much so that she refused to enter treatment, as a result this cancer grew. Unlike the basal cell, this cancer grew fast, and was vicious. On the night before Thanksgiving, the growth was the size of the tip of my thumb, by the next day, it had doubled in size. This one was different than the one that attacked her nose, this one was vile and grotesque – leaking, oozing with a strong stench I will never forget. It rapidly ate a hole in her jaw, so large that eating became almost impossible for her. We pleaded her to go on the treatment program, but by this point she had given up and was waiting for the inevitable. She was consuming massive amounts of morphine to deal with the pain. Several times she asked me to go buy her a bottle of whiskey, so she could wash a bottle of her pills down with it and just end her journey. I could never bring myself to do that for her, but I often wrestle with the question of what if I had. Would it have spared her a few days or weeks of pain? My grandmother noticed this small growth on her jaw in late October, and passed away in May. It’s been over twenty years since she passed away and I still miss her very much.
Flash forward to a few months ago, when I noticed a small – what I thought was a bite next to my left ear, really just larger than a pinhole. After two months, it didn’t appear to be healing, so at my wife’s urging, I scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist. As you might guess, this little sore, was diagnosed as basal cell cancer. Of course this was frightening, all be it not surprising. The doctor outlined a very simple treatment that takes only a matter of minutes, based on how advanced the cancer is. Here’s the thing, as the doctor examined me for other potential issues, she paused a moment to look at the bridge of my nose. Now this didn’t surprise me because I wear reading glasses and they leave a small irritation/indent on the bridge of my nose what surprised me when she wanted to take a biopsy. Shockingly, this came back positive as squamis cell. This little spot on my nose, that I saw everyday and never thought twice about, was skin cancer! I was lucky, the problems were detected early, I found a fantastic team of doctors and the problem is under control.
Early detection is key, even if you aren’t sure, if you see something that makes you question – have it looked at, it’s so much easier to schedule a doctors appointment that finds nothing, than to learn you have something when it’s progressed so far along, the treatments are more arduous, painful and frightening.