“Melanoma can be disfiguring”
That word: Melanoma… Dr. Lee was saying I had melanoma!
For years I had seen dermatologists for treatment of basal cell carcinoma under my right eye. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer and is treated by cryosurgery, which uses liquid nitrogen to freeze the area. During a routine visit in March of 2008, I pointed out a small darkish spot on my left cheek. My physician, Dr. Lee, performed a punch biopsy to get a small sample of cells. A few days later, I got a call from her office asking me to come in again. Dr. Lee informed me that the lab needed more cells and so she cut more tissue out of the area and put in four stitches.
A week later I went back to have the stitches removed. It was then that Dr. Lee broke the news that I had MELANOMA CANCER – the kind that can kill you! That moment will always be a defining moment in my life. I was scared as she explained the next steps and it was hard not to panic. Upon leaving my doctor’s office, I first called my husband and then my mother. “I have cancer!” and “Why me?” were thoughts swirling around in my head. From there, I went directly to the hospital for chest x-rays to see if the cancer had spread. The whole time throughout the scan, I kept saying, “O God, please don’t let it show up!”
The next morning I had a blood test and made my first appointment at the UCSF Melanoma clinic. My emotions were all over the place as I waited for my appointment. I became angry and very depressed.
At the Melanoma clinic, the specialist, Dr. Vinna, came in and introduced himself. After a very uncomfortable head-to-toe exam, the doctor came back to explain to me that my melanoma was past early Stage 1. Now I was really scared. It hadn’t quite reached Stage 2 though, and he drew a diagram showing how large and deep an area would have to be removed.
My first surgery was to remove the cancer. It was alarming to be awake during surgery, even though I was completely numb in the area they were removing. Although there was no pain, I could feel the pressure of the scalpel and the cutting of scissors. Afterwards they burned the blood vessels to stop the bleeding. Smelling my own flesh burning was sickening and was definitely the most frightening part. When it was over they brought a mirror so I could see my face. The sight was horrible! There was a two-inch circle cut down to the muscle and it was blackened from the burning. A pressure bandage was put on which looked like half a baseball tightly taped to my face.
My husband was very caring and empathetic and took good care of me that weekend. My mother and children called often to check how I was doing. They also sent cards, emails and most importantly prayed for me. I am so thankful that my family is my support system.
A week after the first surgery I went back for facial reconstruction. Thankfully my surgeon said the pathology report showed that all the cancer was removed and that the margins were good. I had assumed they would now sew the edges of my incision together, but they gave me a mirror to show me they would be cutting a giant ‘S’ from the top of my ear to below my lip. The skin from under my chin would be pulled up to fill in the hole. My left eye was pulled down and my lip was pulled left. Never in my life did it occur to me that a little “spot” or freckle on my cheek would later in life disfigure the entire left side of my face. What a humbling experience.
Ten days later I was back at UCSF to have the stitches removed. Doctors kept commenting on how good my face looked, but I wanted to yell “Are you CRAZY! Look at what you’ve done to my face!”
The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but the face is what others see first. The left side of my face is disfigured. I see the scars every day in the mirror and can feel them with my hands. I’m still self-conscious and there are still people who see the scars and turn away, but more that don’t. There will be another surgery in a few months to do further reconstruction which means stitches and bandages again. Every six months for two years I will go the Melanoma clinic at UCSF, undress and be checked for cancer. Melanoma will always be a part of my life.
But like the television ads say… “I might have cancer, but it doesn’t have me.”
Written by: Kathy Palmer, Stage 1 Melanoma survivor, California