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Saving Face: My Experience With Basal Cell Carcinoma

It all started with an innocent-looking pink bump near my jaw line. Maybe a zit, I thought, though I am not prone to those (don’t hate me for clear skin – a proverbial black cloud has stalked me for years). The pink bump flared up and went away, just like a good little blemish should. But then it came back in the exact same spot a couple of weeks later. Intrigued, I just couldn’t leave it alone this time… and it bled. Profusely.

I just knew it was cancer. Between my stint as a health reporter and my unrelenting obsession with Google, I am an MD by osmosis. I called my dermatologist and pleaded to be seen right away. One punch needle biopsy later and my diagnosis was confirmed: basal cell carcinoma.

Really? Four months after my mom died of cancer and I had it, too? I am convinced I have a reputation up above as a badass.

I agonized about what to do. Post-mommyhood, I have pretty much given up from the neck down, but I still liked my face. Do I try the chemotherapy cream with a considerably lower cure rate that would burn my face but eventually leave me with no scar? Or do I go for tissue-sparing Mohs surgery with a 99 percent cure rate and a definite scar? Despite my vanity, I chose Mohs… and had the wound closed by a leading plastic surgeon. Good balance, yes?

woman wearing a hospital gown with gauze and a bandage on her cheek after surgery

I had the surgery one day before my 41st birthday… the first one I celebrated without my mom. I missed being my mom’s daughter so much on that day. If she were alive, she would have dragged herself out of bed to make me laugh and hold my hand during my five-hour procedure. She would have bought beautiful pajamas and new slippers for my recuperation period in the house. She would have delivered homemade soup to nourish my sad soul. She would have sent me inspirational emails, called me 100 times per day, and put things in perspective. And she would have been the one splurging on La Mer restorative concentrate to minimize my scar.

Instead, I endured the pain alone.

I still can’t believe I had cancer – the “good” type, the kind people rarely die from, the “easy” one – and she wasn’t here to give me a hug. I wonder if she even saw what I went through. Four years later, I know the tumor is completely gone, and I am grateful. The silence of her death still hurts much more than my swollen, achy jaw ever did.

Below are the signs of basal cell carcinoma. When in doubt, see your doctor (I always go and have the co-payments to prove it!). Basal cell skin cancer grows slowly and is usually painless. It may not look that different from your normal skin but some symptoms include:

  • A skin sore that bleeds easily
  • A sore that does not heal
  • A scar-like sore without having injured the area
  • Irregular blood vessels in or around the spot
  • A sore with a depressed (sunken) area in the middle
  • Sores can look pearly or waxy, white or light pink, or flesh-colored or brown

You can follow Jodi Meltzer Darter on her website, Facebook and Twitter.

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