Unless you’re born between the 22nd of June and the 22nd of July, ‘cancer’ can be a pretty scary word! So many millions of people die of cancer, or cancer-related illnesses all the time, and we’re all well aware that it’s out there and people have it. I’d be surprised if anyone doesn’t at least know of someone who has or had cancer. My own grandfather died of cancer-related issues a little over a year ago. Even my cat, my most beloved little buddy Monster, died of cancer, so it’s not at all relegated to the humans in our lives.
Late last year I realised a curious little growth between the bridge of my nose and the corner of my eye had tiny little veins threading through it. I’d previously had this particular little growth checked, but it had appeared from nowhere and refused to go away. I recalled thinking it was a pimple and attacking it as pimples must be attacked, but none of my efforts could entirely erase it from my face. The little blood vessels, however, triggered a bout of research that concluded with Basal Cell Carcinoma, of a nodular variety.
From that conclusion I was dually anxious to realise I had a cancerous spot on my face, and satisfied that it probably wouldn’t kill me. Apparently they are the most commonly diagnosed skin cancer in the world, but Basal Cell Carcinomas rarely metastasise. They do invade surrounding tissue, however, and if you’re brave enough to do a google image search, you could find a few stomach-turning pictures of what could happen if a BCC isn’t dealt with. Still, armed with what I knew, I wasn’t really alarmed when I went to see my doctor about it. My parents get checked over every few months and always come home with little freezer burns where they’ve had spots ‘dealt with’, so I kinda knew what to expect.
Except the part where it would be me, and on my face!
Though my GP checked the spot a year or so earlier, he agreed that it looked like it was something to worry about and promptly booked me in for an excision. (Just because a spot is cleared of being a malignant growth one visit doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed by the next visit, so keep up with your spots!)
The surgery was pretty traumatic, but only because I have a desperate phobia of needles. If I hadn’t had a good friend there to hold my hand I probably would have made such a silly spectacle of myself, no doubt including projectile vomit and panicked releasing of my bowels.
I really don’t handle needles at all well. Though on the upside, I’ll never be a junkie!
A piece of my face was cut out and sent off for testing, and I got my first stitches! Yes, I’ve made it to my late 30s without having any stitches! By the time I returned to have the stitches removed, my GP already had the results of tests done on the chunk of my face – it was confirmed as a basal cell carcinoma… and my doctor didn’t get it all. My margins weren’t clear.
I didn’t understand what that meant at first, but I can tell you that over the next few weeks I became a bit obessed with ‘clear margins’! In case you don’t know, clear margins means there are enough cancer free cells/tissue surrounding the malignancy to be assured they cut it all out. My GP didn’t get it all!
My options were to cut some more, ride it out and wait for it to resurface (BCC as a game of whack-a-mole), or see a cosmetic surgeon who’ll perform Mohs Surgery. I could possibly have gone down the cryosurgery route too, but as soon as I learned about Mohs, that was what I wanted. The idea of someone cutting and testing each slice to be sure they got all the malignant cells seemed the best solution, and the most likely to help me sleep at night.
So, my GP sent me to a cosmetic surgeon in town who supposedly performs Mohs Surgery (doesn’t that sounds like an interpretive dance piece?). When I got in to see said cosmetic surgeon I found he was quite nice and personable and I expected he’d come at me with syringes and dig into my face then and there – no really, that’s what I expected! Instead, he took a photograph of the area and duly informed me that he doesn’t actually do Mohs Surgery, but if I was prepared to throw several thousand dollars away he could perform another excision in the hospital, under general anaesthetic, and add a graft to minimise the scar… only without any assurance of those clear margins I was obsessing about.
I thanked him, and politely declined. If I’m going to throw a few thousand dollars at a guy to get rid of a cancer spot, I want to be assured he will get all of that cancer spot! I could have another, regular ol’ excision done for free, have as much assurance of clear margins… and get a cool scar!
In the end, after investigating a few other options – like the cryosurgery that no rational doctor would perform so close to my eye – I went back to my GP for another plain ol’ excision. As I type this I have quite a nasty red shiner half hidden beneath an elastoplast. I’m not sure how many stitches I have this time – I’d rather not look until the swelling has subsided – but my GP took an even larger chunk of my face and sent it off for testing. I look pretty gruesome, to be honest, and I’ve no idea how pronounced this latest scar will be.
Last night, just after close of business, my GP called to let me know the pathologists already sent the results (a 2-day turn around!): There was no sign of cancer cells in the tissue sample.
If I were a pessimist I’d probably be a bit irked that I now have a hole in my face for no reason, but I’m not a pessimist, even though I acknowledge that there is, indeed, a hole in my face for no reason. The fact of the matter is that I wouldn’t know that the surgery was unnecessary without the surgery, and I’m absolutely going to sleep a whole lot better knowing that the cancer is all gone. Apparently, with this variety of BCC, the cells are so dependent on each other that, if you remove a sizeable amount of them, the rest will die, especially if the area around the remaining cells is under attack by flesh trying to repair itself from the trauma of surgery. An army of repair cells likely slaughtered the last of the malignant infidels while they were busy threading together a scar!
Nature is awesome.
I’d like to hope that this will be my one and only personal brush with the readed C-word, since a BCC is pretty benign as far as malignancies go. If you absolutely have to choose a type of skin cancer to get, basal cell carcinoma is the way to go. Unfortunately, as a pasty-skinned blonde with a genetic pre-disposition, already dotted with freckles and moles, it’s only a matter of time before another spot surfaces, and I really will be living a game of whack-a-mole. (See what I did there?!)
TL;DR – I bought a hat and wear sunscreen a lot these days.
I’ll let you know how the newest scar looks when I can see it! Expecting a bit of a ‘sleepy eye’ for a while as the skin tightens around the gaping chasm!