My skin cancer journey
This year really started out with a bang. We just celebrated Chinese New Year which brings us the year of the Fire Rooster. According to astrologists this year will be “challenging” and and it will be a powerful one, with no middle of the road when it comes to moving forward. This year, impressions count. No kidding. Last week I underwent surgery on my face to remove a basal cell carcinoma (skin cancer). How’s that for making an impression? As a licensed acupuncture physician I am used to treating and caring for others, not the other way around. While this isn’t my first round with skin cancer, it is the most significant to date. It was during my recent mandatory bed rest for recovery that I decided to share my story. To chronicle the procedures, treatments, emotions and progress so that hopefully others will benefit from my experience. Perhaps I can impart my knowledge on expediting the healing process and spread awareness. And that perhaps some good can come from something so difficult that so many people have also experienced. Or will. Did you know that each year in the U.S. over 5.4 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancers are diagnosed? And that each year there are more new cases of skin cancers than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon? Add to that between 40-50% of Americans who live to age 65 will have either basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma at least once. In the past eight years I have had five. Two of which have now required surgical removal.
This is the first installment on my skin blog. It serves to set the timeline of recent events leading up to week one progress. I hope to have semi-regular installments going forward documenting my treatments and progress made, to inform you of superb treatment options available during your healing, and to give some much needed encouragement. I was fortunate to have learned scar tissue treatment and desensitization techniques in the beginning of my career. Long before I even went to Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine post graduate school. I cannot tell you how many patients I have helped in recovery of surgical procedures over the past 20 years. Some recent post surgical and others many years post surgical. And the one thing that simply blows my mind is how little scar tissue rehabilitation is mentioned. Or taught. The subject is practically nonexistent in the medical world. But I am here to tell you, scar tissue can be treated quickly, and you can regain feeling and function. Not only that, it can be a pretty quick recovery if begun right after the surgical procedure. It saddens me that so many patients never fully regain feeling at their surgical site. Ever. Because they never received proper care of post surgical incisions. And this, my friends, is why I have decided to put my personal experience on this blog for all to see. I hope you enjoy the posts, I hope you learn from it and more importantly I hope you share with your friends and family. Just an FYI, complete recovery from this kind of surgery takes about a year. Not that it will take the entire year to look or feel better, just to fully “matriculate”. Given that, some of the posts may be longer than others and all will have documenting pics, some more graphic than others.
And while some of these might not be pleasant to view, I can promise it all gets better. And easier. And less painful. And prettier. Here we go.
February 19, 2016
Dermatologist visit: Today’s visit was a belated visit for a total body scan and review of previous skin issues. A precancer actinic keratosis (AK) was frozen off of my left eyebrow as well as a “curious spot” of tissue on my right cheek. If you’ve never had this done before, beware it burns! Especially on the face. I also had the physician also take a look a curious area to the left of my nose, but it doesn’t seem to register much interest with her at all. Good! And I got the go ahead to schedule my next check up in 12 months, instead of the usual 6. Officially happy!
December 16, 2016
Dermatology visit (early): Didn’t quite make the 12 month mark as I found another area of concern on my left shin that’s been bugging me for several weeks. Perhaps even a couple of months. And while I’m at it, might as well have the left nostril area checked out too as it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere these days. It used to come and go like acne, but now it stays. And if I bother it too much it now bleeds. Not good. The shin spot was luckily another AK and promptly frozen off, but the spot next to my nose was another story. At further examination under the cool blue light those guys use my dermatologist has decide it “looks like basal cell carcinoma” and a sample needs to be sent in for a biopsy. Greeeaattt… a slice was taken and I get to go back to my clinic to treat patients today with a humongous white pressure bandage on my face. There’s simply way to disguise it and it must stay on for the next 24 hours. Awesome way to start a Friday. All I can think to myself is “at least it’s a good hair day”.
December 23, 2016
Biopsy results: positive for basal cell carcinoma with pathology of nodular cells and a prompt referral to a Mohs physician to handle the excision “sooner rather than later”. Merry Christmas!
January 10, 2017
7:30 am Initial consultation with Mohs specialist Dr. Lutz to go over expectations and protocol of upcoming procedure. Super quick consult, nice staff. Now I need to make room in my schedule to have it done.
February 1, 2017
7:30 am Today is the day! Mohs procedure done to remove all cancer cells found on my face. Just to left of my nose, specifically. This spot has been visible for quite sometime actually, just about a year in total. And having had enough experience with skin cancer in the past I know it’s not something to Tango with for too much longer. It takes two rounds of excision to fully remove all cancer cells and I leave the office confident of clean edges and with a pressure bandage in place while I head to the cosmetic surgeon this afternoon.
1:30 pm I have elected to use a cosmetic surgeon to close the Mohs excision specifically because….well because IT’S MY FACE! The Mohs specialists I have gone to (2 now in 2 years) get a bit offended by electing to have a Mohs closure elsewhere, but this simply isn’t their area of expertise. Their area is removal of cancer cells on the skin. I would, however, be perfectly comfortable with them closing on any other area of my body. Just not my face. The first area I had to have removed was 2 years ago and on my forehead. That Mohs physician started talking about a skin flap and taking extra skin from my hip. Um, no thank you. The cosmetic surgeon that I used then sewed it up perfectly well, and left an almost unnoticeable incision at the top of my forehead, blending perfectly with my facial lines. This physician is the same that I have chosen to close my nasal/cheek excision area today.
I arrive perfectly comfortable to be in his care as an established patient. Even excited to have the procedure completed. Until he started talking. The approximate 1″ diameter hole he has to sew up will now take extra incisions along the side of my nose up to the eye and even possibly under the eye itself to “heal properly”. Now is the time to freak out. Right now. Seriously?!
He assures me this is the best case scenario for having a smooth scar line. If not the scar tissue will bind and pull and never blend seamlessly. At some point of his explanation I am certain Snoopy’s teacher is talking and all I hear is white noise. I am so ill-prepared for this information that I’m visibly having a tough time keeping it together. No joke. Even while giving the local anaesthetic to the area he continues to chat about possible scar lines. I am literally freaking out! To the point he now suggest the possibility of general anaesthesia to knock me out so he can continue on with his job. As a side note, that would have been complete overkill but clearly I made him nervous. So as a secondary option I am then offered a glass of wine to calm my nerves. And because half of my face is now numb I also need a straw to drink the wine. Done! Have I said how much I love this place yet? No? Well at least I’m starting to calm down and remember that I fully trust this man.
3:00pm The closure is complete and I have been released with proper care instructions of the area to my driver (and fabulous-of-a-man fiance, Rich). As I remove my surgical gown to get dressed I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror. Commence tears. This suuuucks! I mean really sucks. For safe measures I text my fiance to prepare him that it’s not pretty. Please don’t freak out.
My next blog post will cover the first full week post surgery with lots more pics. Talk to you soon!