Mel Gunnell Shares Photos of ‘Scab’ on Nose That Turned Out to Be Skin Cancer
Editor’s note: This post contains graphic post-operative photos.
Mel Gunnell is a self-described “food loving, chocolate-obsessed mom” from southwest Idaho whose blog of homegrown recipes, Mel’s Kitchen Café, attracts millions of readers each month. However, there’s one post that isn’t about food recipes, tips or tutorials — it’s about her personal experience with skin cancer.
Before we can even get to that cancer story, we have to go back even further to the 39-year-old’s first experience with the disease. It happened when she was pregnant with her fourth child. At a routine 12-week OBGYN visit, her doctor found a lump in her neck.
“Insistent it was nothing major, I had an ultrasound that led to 14 needle biopsies,” she told The Mighty, “and the news: it was unconfirmed but could be thyroid cancer.”
At just 17 weeks pregnant, Gunnell had a full thyroidectomy to remove some lymph nodes. That’s when the doctor confirmed she had two types of thyroid cancer: papillary and follicular. Papillary thyroid cancer accounts for 85 percent of all thyroid cancers, and follicular thyroid cancer for 15 percent. Both are more common in females by a 3 to 1 ratio.
Gunnell underwent radiation for thyroid cancer and spent the next few years seeing several doctors (mainly because her family moved across the country). Every move meant she had to reestablish new care for managing her thyroid dosage and post-cancer treatment.
Fast forward to 2016, when Gunnell shared her non-food-related blog post, “What Happened to My Face.” After successfully establishing a loyal fan base over 10 years and realizing she could use her popularity to teach people in other ways, she decided (very nervously) to share the story of her second cancer experience. It began in the fall of 2015.
After going to a dermatologist’s office to get a spot on her back checked and confirming it was not melanoma, she was hugely relieved. While she was there she asked the doctor about another spot on her body.
“I asked the doctor about a tiny spot on my nose that had been there for a couple months and seemed like a scab that wouldn’t heal,” she says. “I actually felt a little silly for asking about it but figured it wouldn’t hurt since I was already there.”
You can see the spot below faintly in the photo below:
Her doctor was 99 percent sure it was basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer that has more than four million cases of it diagnosed in the U.S. each year. After getting a biopsy a week later, the results confirmed it was.
Gunnell wasn’t worried because it was such a small spot, and she figured she’d be out of surgery quickly. That wasn’t exactly the case.
In December she was scheduled for Mohs surgery, a microscopic surgery done in stages where doctors remove, examine and reconstruct the cancerous area. During surgery, the spot decided to be problematic, and it took several cuts, removals and examinations of Gunnell’s nose to finally find clear margins.
“What I was left with was a decent sized (and quite deep) hole in the side of my nose,” she says.
Thanks to good meds and great doctors she didn’t feel any pain. But once she was shown the hole with a mirror and a black marker was drawn along it to show where they would need to cut to pull skin down to cover it up, she panicked a little. Or, more like a lot.
She adds, “An hour later and I was the new owner of 20+ stitches front and center on my face, with more underneath the ski and lots of iodine to enhance my natural coloring.”
Before she left, the doctor gave her the note below. You can probably guess if she, being a food preparer, cooker and blogger, followed its instructions.
Gunnell cried the entire drive back home. (In hindsight, she now realizes she probably shouldn’t have driven herself to and from the appointment.) She kept her bandage on for several days, and the pain was unbearable, but she finally took it off.
“I was still in a lot of pain; it was so tender to the touch, and the bruising and swelling were just getting started,” she says. “Plus, even though I know it could have been worse, I was struggling a bit with the emotional pain of wondering if my face would ever look ‘normal’ again.”
The holiday season that year just wasn’t the same, and Gunnell remained self-conscious about her scar. She couldn’t leave her house for several weeks because of it, and even her 8-year-old son couldn’t look her in the face because it gave his “tummy the jigglies” — something she can’t blame him for saying.
She also put her food blog on a hiatus for several months to focus on healing.
But the same can-do attitude that got her past her first brush with cancer finally found its way back. She started going out and embracing her “Who needs makeup, anyways?” look. She begrudgingly accepted the post-swelling and slight imperfections that came with recovery (like how her left eye slightly pulled back, making it difficult for her glasses to rest on her nose). And she healed.
In the end, Gunnell is grateful for this skin cancer experience.
“I never ever ever would have made an appointment for a ‘silly’ spot on my nose, but being able to ask the doctor about it at the first appointment was divine intervention,” she says. “Who knows what would have happened had the cancer had even more time to spread?”
She’s also thankful she felt compelled to share her experience with readers on her blog, despite being fairly private about her personal life. It was both humbling and overwhelming to read so many personal accounts from readers who were inspired to see a dermatologist about a spot they had noticed and disregarded.
“Over 75 readers have let me know that,” she says. “In some cases, it ended up being noncancerous, some had precancerous spots, and many others had basal cell diagnoses just like I did. And several ended up getting MOHS surgery, as well. While it makes me sad that others have to go through this, I’ve wondered, ‘What if I had never shared?’ and ‘What if these men and women had waited longer to see a doctor?’”
Today, Gunnell is skin cancer-free and currently has no issues with thyroid cancer other than taking daily medication and seeing an endocrinologist a couple of times each year. She’s happy to have shared her experience to inspire others and raise awareness for skin cancer.
Most importantly, she’s thankful for the life lessons she’s learned for her family, which includes her husband and five children. She’s thankful because she wants more than anything to stick around and have meaningful relationships with her kids. She wants to keep playing board games with them and going to their music and sports activities. She wants to finish raising them and see them raise their own children.
What’s the biggest life lesson she’s learned? Wear sunscreen.
If that means being the only mom on the lake or boat wearing a large-brimmed hat, carrying an umbrella and lathering on sunscreen head to toe while wearing a long-sleeve swimsuit and skirt, then she’s willing to do it. She says it’s a small price to pay to have healthy skin and be around for her family.
“Get rid of the thought ‘it won’t ever happen to me,’” she says, “and start taking the simple, practical steps every day for skin cancer prevention.”
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All photos courtesy of Mel Gunnell