Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Face of Cancer

Brown Women's Rhinestone Floppy Sun Hat

This spring has held a few firsts for me. The first mother-daughter trip in a long while. The first stressful year-end evaluation with my principal in a new public school (I think I survived and will be hired back for another year). The makings of the first set of plans for sending my daughter to college. These events had all been anticipated. I'd been able to prepare.

What I hadn't planned on was becoming a statistic, on joining a couple million other Americans this year in being diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma. I was given the news as "good news" over the phone. Basal cell carcinoma is slow growing, I'd been told, and usually just requires an outpatient cosmetic surgery. This description left me feeling fine, unconcerned. Then I went in for a follow-up to make sure there weren't other spots of concern on my skin. It was during this visit that I was dealt the bad news -- and the reality of being diagnosed with a cancer, an actual cancer, set in.

Because the first thing I realized was that my "basal cell carcinoma" was pictured on a handy poster of skin cancers on the examining room door. Basal cell carcinoma sat right next to melanoma, the more concerning type. But these "slow-growing" basal cell photos also showed rouge cancerous cells breaking off from the group, identical to those breaking off from melanoma group, apparently in order to move freely about my body and set up shop wherever they wished.

Still, I felt unconcerned, or wanted to anyway. After all, when the doctor had removed the concerning patch of skin from my cheek where it rested alongside my nose for biopsy a couple weeks before, all that remained was a light pink spot. I'd figured it'd been removed in its entirety.

"That's the bad news about this type of cancer," the doctor said. "What we removed is like a tip of an iceberg. It grows like an iceberg, or an upside mushroom; so even though we removed the tip and even though it's slow growing, there's no telling how far it has spread under the top layers of skin until we start cutting and removing in the surgery.  And we won't stop until it's all gone."

And of course that where the stories began -- the personal experiences people want to share. The doctor told me of her sister, who had been through the same sort of thing. What started out as a tiny inconspicuous patch like mine, ended up being the size of a silver dollar by the time they had removed all the tissue. Her point wasn't to scare me, she said, but to tell me that the scar was hardly noticeable now. The cosmetic surgeons are very good she said. "That is why we send you to them."

Another person told me of his father. "He was gone a year later," he said, shaking his head. "Don't wait on getting it taken care of." Then he half-smiled. "Just wait until after our big track meet coming up. We'll need you," he joked. (I'm an assistant track coach).

Another person told me of a friend who has had numerous basal cell spots removed, leaving me with images of holes all over my face. "She's fine," she assured me. "She gets them removed all the time. She's a lot older than you, though. You're young for this." 

And the stories continue to come.

Please don't tell me stories. I know they need to be told. I just don't want to hear them. Not yet. Anyone who knows me knows that I am the epitome of a "living in the moment" type of person. Anyone who knows me knows that I am the epitome of what it means to be "empathetic." I will feel every cut, every bruise, every hurtful experience that is relayed to me. I am overly sensitive that way. When my daughter tore her ACL in soccer and couldn't walk, suddenly, I was in pain in the same knee and had trouble walking myself. This continued for the duration of her injury. She thought I was nuts. So did I -- although I had been injured in a similar way when I was about her age, so it almost made sense to think that I knew what she was feeling. Almost.

But mostly, I am not a good planner. I don't relish the idea of contemplating alternative realities that may not ever occur, particularly those that may bring hardship. And right now, I'm enjoying a homemade cup coffee -- vanilla latte, actually. And despite how un-vanilla latte it appears, because I lack most of the equipment required in making such a concoction -- I am still telling myself I'm enjoying it.  So that is how it is, in my life, right now, at the moment.

Thankfully, my kids don't have stories to tell. They don't have concerns either. They call my basal cell carcinoma "a condition," jokingly, to help lighten our nerves, I suppose. The reality is that we won't know how it will all be until after it's all done. And I suppose they have always known me to be strong, resilient, and able to come up with a reason to laugh or at least smile, even after the darkest of moments, even when I don't want to. I suppose that's why I am going to bring a few photos along with me to surgery, just in case the surgeon finds himself needing to use more cosmetic skills than he was bargaining for, or even if he just finds himself feeling an immediate urge to practice. Maybe he'll view me as a good specimen. A free nose-job thrown in the deal might be nice. After all, I'd been thinking that the concerning side of my face with the "condition" was getting puffy and needed to be fixed anyhow. Plus, it'll be my birthday. So it could be a gift. Right on time.

... What do you think about Jennifer Anniston ... or Gweneth Paltrow ... or Natalie Portman ... just to name a few? They'll be loaded on my phone, for easy access in high definition.

The point of this post isn't to scare. It's to help remind you to prepare to avoid getting skin cancer--even the non-concerning types. Wear your sunscreen. Wear your hats. Get your yearly skin checks, even if you think you're young. I did all these things, but probably not as well as I could. I've always considered myself to be a normal-looking person, with normal routines. But I suppose I could have done better.

When you're done preparing, enjoy the best life has to offer.

I know I'll keep being a mom; I'll keep being a teacher; I'll keep being a writer. Only I'll keep being these things with a bigger set of hats and sunbrellas, and hopefully not feeling like I have to hide the face with this cancer.


  1. So sorry to hear your diagnosis but know this too you're hearing all the bad stories. The good story is yours to be told in a year when everything is fine and your stronger and wiser for what you've gone through.

    I like how you're handling it. Stay strong stay positive and don't dwell on the what if's. Instead dwell on the 'what you want the outcome to be' and work towards that. I know that's what you'll do! :) sending hugs and healthy thoughts!

    1. Thanks, KJ! I know all will be well. It is all unsettling at the moment. Mostly, since the summer season is coming up, I hope to remind everyone to be sure to take care of themselves.

  2. Sink your teeth into this "condition," chew it up and spit it out. Lots of prayers via Casa Malik.

    1. thanks, Chef! I shall pay no heed to table manners in tackling this one. ;)