Unprotected sunbathing was a youthful indiscretion for many teenage baby boomers. Going for the burn, we’d spend endless summer days on the beach, often slathered in baby oil. It rarely occurred to us that we’d pay a high price later on. We didn’t know that sun damage was cumulative.
At midlife, my skin felt a series of wake-up calls in the form of age spots, wrinkles, and several bouts of basal cell skin cancer.
For instance, there was the time I’d assumed that a lesion on my right cheek was nothing to worry about — just a slow-healing blemish that could be camouflaged with a swipe of powder blush.
But my dermatologist suspected otherwise when she noticed it during an annual full-body checkup. Days later, the biopsy report confirmed that a large basal cell epithelioma was spreading its roots beneath the surface of my cheek, just an inch below my right eye.
After delivering the scary news, my dermatologist referred me to a surgeon who specializes in the Mohs method, a microscopically controlled cancer surgery developed by Dr. Frederic Mohs in the 1930s.
Typically lasting from five to seven hours, Mohs surgery involves removing and examining a patient’s cancerous skin tissue, one layer at a time, until only cancer-free tissue remains. Afterward, the surgeon might opt to close the wound using plastic surgery techniques or allow it to heal by itself, depending on its location.
The cure rate for Mohs surgery is high – up to 99% for some cancers. And while the stellar reputation of my surgeon was reassuring, I was nervous about the procedure — and worried about the new scar I’d soon acquire.
Facing up to shame
Even if you’re not terribly vain, a prominent scar on your face isn’t easy to reconcile, especially if you’re female. Thanks to “anti-aging” product advertisers and beauty editors, women are made to feel ashamed of wrinkles, blemishes, and other so-called imperfections.
Sociologist and best-selling author Brene Brown often writes about this issue.
“After all of the consciousness-raising and critical awareness, we still feel the most shame about not being young and beautiful enough,” she explains in Daring Greatly (Avery; paperback). Brown’s “shame research,” as she calls it, hit home the first day after my Mohs surgery.
Following my seven-hour procedure, I returned home with a two-inch, vertical row of “Frankenstein stitches” on my cheek and some painful bruising around my eye. I spent the next day clutching an ice pack, regretting every minute I’d sunbathed without sunscreen.
An ounce of prevention
As noted in my surgeon’s post-op instructions, scars go through a year-long maturation process and sometimes look worse as they heal. My own new scar morphed from bright red to deep purple to pale pink, months after the stitches were removed.
Ironically, a week before my skin cancer diagnosis, I’d been scouting local cosmetic departments for the best anti-wrinkle creams available. But my sovereign skin cancer surgery quickly changed my outlook on the battle against aging. Wrinkles were the least of my worries.
Today, the health of my skin is a top priority, and I never postpone checkups with my dermatologist. If anything looks suspicious, I take comfort in the fact that my best defense against skin cancer is early detection.
Time has kindly softened the appearance of the Frankenstein scar on my right cheek. But it’s still a faint reminder of a hard-won lesson. I never spend a day working in the garden or walking outdoors without wearing a good sunscreen and one of the broad-brimmed hats in my collection.
Royal Oak lifestyle columnist Cindy La Ferle is the author of an essay collection, Writing Home. Visit Cindy La Ferle’s Life Lines: laferle.com.