4 Things I Learned from Getting Skin Cancer
Well, here’s something I never thought I’d say: I was diagnosed with skin cancer.
This weird and woeful tale (with a happy ending!) all started about a year ago in April 2021, when I noticed a dry spot of skin on my scalp right along my hairline part. Sometimes I’d accidentally scratch the spot while I was washing or styling my hair, and it would start to bleed.
I figured it was a little odd – probably nothing to worry about – but since I hadn’t been for a skin check in a couple of years, I decided to book myself in.
At my appointment, along with a couple of other freckles I was mildly concerned about, I showed the spot to my Doctor. She advised it looked fine and maybe was just a rash or an irritation from a shampoo or something.
About eight months later, I noticed the spot turn into a weird little bobble thing, kind of like a very light coloured mole. It didn’t hurt or bother me in any way, but I remembered what they say about watching for any spot changes.
I decided to make another skin check appointment, just in case.
I saw a different Doctor this time, who recognised it immediately as a basal cell carcinoma (BCC), the most common (and thankfully, least dangerous) form of skin cancer. She performed a biopsy immediately and within a few days, the diagnosis was confirmed. It would have to be removed.
Four weeks later, I attended a day surgery hospital to receive Mohs surgery, widely considered the most effective technique for treating BCCs.
Sometimes called Mohs micrographic surgery, this technique is performed in stages, while the patient waits (fully awake!) between each stage. After removing a section of tissue, it is examined under a microscope in a hospital lab. If any cancer cells remain around the edges, the surgeon removes another section of tissue from that precise location, while sparing as much healthy tissue as possible. The doctor repeats this process until no cancer cells remain.
The process can take anywhere from between two hours to an entire day, depending on how many sections of skin are required to be removed.
As luck would have it, I was in the 20% of patients who only have to have one section of tissue removed (a margin of about 2mm in depth and diameter around the original BCC, leaving me with a smaller permanent scar and bald spot). Needless to say, I was thrilled! My surgical team were wonderful, and my procedure took 3.5 hours all up.
Three days later, I returned to the hospital for a wound check and dressing change, and I’m happy to report I am now cancer-free!
So how did I get here?
According to Cancer Council Australia, the factors that make you more at risk for developing skin cancer are:
- lots of moles or freckles
- fair skin that burns easily and does not tan
- light coloured eyes (blue or green), light coloured hair (blonde or red)
- a family history of skin cancer
Although I don’t possess any of these features, the Australian ‘no hat, no play’ rule didn’t come into effect until the mid-90’s, after my schooling years were over. I’ve always enjoyed long walks and I love the beach, and unfortunately, I suffered a few sunburns in my teens. I also went for a dozen or so tanning solarium sessions in my twenties (I know, I know), before I understood (or cared, really) about the potential risks and consequences.
What I’ve since learned is that Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, with approximately two in three Australians diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70. According to the Cancer Council:
“This is due largely to our climate, the fact that many of us have fair skin that isn’t really suited to such harsh conditions, our proximity to the equator (high UV levels), and our social attitudes and love for the outdoors.”
I don’t regret my time spent outdoors. I always feel infinitely happier in summer and when by the beach. But getting skin cancer fairly young (it’s most commonly diagnosed in people over 60), was definitely a learning experience.
In particular, there are 4 things I learned from getting skin cancer:
1. Be sun smart!
If I had to do it all over again, this is one thing I’d do differently.
I must confess I previously had a very relaxed attitude when it came to sunscreens, hats, and generally covering up. Born with an olive complexion that tans easily, I thought I could get away with being much more chill about the whole situation.
Turns out it’s much more chill to slap on a hat than it is to get skin cancer cut out of you. Please learn from my mistakes and protect that beautiful body of yours. Prevention is better than cure, every day of the week.
When outdoors, watch the UV index and cover up with a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses whenever it’s above 3.
2. Trust your intuition.
No-one knows your body as well as you. If you have a hunch that something isn’t right, or notice a spot has changed, go and get it checked. If a Doctor assures you it’s fine but it doesn’t feel fine, go back a second time, or seek a second (or even third!) opinion.
Advocate for yourself and your health, and don’t stop until you take all the tests available and you’re completely satisfied that it isn’t a bigger issue.
I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard about misdiagnosis. Doctors are human; they sometimes miss things or make mistakes. Be your body’s best ally, and trust that little voice within that tells you something’s off.
3. Find, use and repeat a mantra that makes you feel safe.
My favourite when it comes to anything health-related is:
“I am not my body.”
These little words have helped me so much over the years (especially the last two, in also dealing with Long-COVID) to not get freaked out by medical issues. I even like to go so far as to phrase things in this manner to my doctor. So rather than, “I started shaking” or “I felt sick”, I say “My body started shaking.” Or “my body experienced nausea”.
It’s a small difference of words that might feel silly at first, but always helps me to feel almost like I’m a parent taking care of my body, rather than a victim at the mercy of every weird ache and pain my body experiences.
I also love to think of my body like I would an automobile. Just like a car, it needs regular TLC and servicing. And the fact is, the older we get, the more of a vintage model we own (ha!).
We can treat it well by providing it with the right fuel and having regular check-ups, or we can ignore any issues and drive it into the ground. It’s entirely our choice, but I know which one I’d rather cruise around in when it’s sixty years old!
4. Don’t avoid regular check-ups, or ignore your health.
I know that activities like going for skin checks or sitting in a Dentist’s chair are never fun, and I’m sure we could all think of at least a dozen things we’d rather do, but catching issues earlier means they’re easier to deal with and treat.
I’m so grateful I went back for another skin check when I did, and we caught this little critter while it was still only 4mm wide. I really didn’t enjoy losing my hair or having the cancer cut out, but if it was larger, it would have only been so much worse.
Ignoring skin cancers and other issues means they have a chance to grow and spread and potentially affect other areas in the body, and make an even bigger and more dangerous nuisance of themselves.
Your body is the only home you have for this lifetime, so take care of it. Love and cherish it, and it’ll reward you with vitality and energy for more life.
Make yourself proud and get your #adulting on. Book your next check-up today.
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