On a Personal Note: What Happened to My Face

This is not an April’s Fools post/joke (I wish!) although the timing is a little funny. Kind of? Ok, not really.

I wanted to step back from food for a minute and talk about something a little more personal today in the hopes that maybe my experience can help even just one person reading this.

I’ve been grateful over the years as my blog following has grown beyond what I ever expected – it’s given me a lot of reason to wonder if I’m really doing good and how I can do more. In addition to sharing delicious, tried-and-true recipes, I hope I can help people in other ways. Maybe today is such a day.

Warning: somewhat gruesome (depending on your tolerance level) pictures follow, not to mention more selfies than I’ve ever taken in my life, so read at your own risk. Also, this is taking a bit of courage to post; I hope I can count on you to be kind with your comments (no unnecessary compliments, not fishing for those, but please no cruelty). 

Last fall, I ended up at the dermatologist’s office getting a spot on my back checked out. A deep, elliptical biopsy and 12 stitches later (plus a week or so of waiting) and the good news came back that it was not melanoma like the doctor suspected but instead a dysplastic nevus (precursor to melanoma but very good news, nonetheless).

While I was there for that appointment, 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. 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 here (as I’m intently whistling – or maybe trash talking – while working on a puzzle over Thanksgiving last year):

Mel's PSA: Please Wear Sunscreen

After about three seconds of examining the spot, my doctor was 99% sure it was basal cell carcinoma. I went back in a week or so later for a biopsy and sure enough, a few days later, the results came back that the seemingly innocent spot really was basal cell carcinoma.

Basal cell carcinoma is a fairly common type of skin cancer but still taken seriously by my dermatologist. To my credit, I didn’t really freak out (kind of a shocker, really) because it was such a small spot and I figured it would be pretty easy to take care of.

Fast forward several weeks later to December 1 when I was scheduled to have MOHS surgery on that spot. I knew that I would be getting a local anesthetic for the area (needles in the nose – ouch!!!) and the doctor would little by little remove an area of skin including and around the basal cell carcinoma spot, send it to the lab to be inspected under a microscope and come back with results (all while I waited in the room).

That process would continue until the borders were clean – meaning, no cancer. I was certain, positively certain, it would be one small removal and I’d be out of there.

Unfortunately, that very tiny spot on my nose had decided to get naughty underneath the surface and after several cuts (and more dang shots in my nose!), clean borders were finally found. What I was left with was a decent sized (and quite deep) hole in the side of my nose.

I didn’t feel any pain (thanks to the terrible but blessed little shots) and didn’t feel any panic in that moment (thanks to a very competent doctor). That is, until he showed me the area in a mirror and drew with black marker up along my nose where he would now need to cut in order to pull skin down to cover the crater in my nose (after we ruled out the option of a skin graft since it would be nearly impossible to match the skin color and tone of my nose).

The pictures of that part of the procedure are too gory to share on a nice cooking blog like this, but suffice to say, I started to panic a little. Ok, a lot.

An hour later and I was the new owner of 20+ stitches front and center on my face (with more underneath the skin) and lots of iodine to enhance my natural coloring.

Mel's PSA: Please Wear Sunscreen

Oh, and the doctor did give me this note also. I’ll give you one guess as to whether or not I obeyed doctor’s orders.

Mel's PSA: Please Wear Sunscreen

I left the office. And I bawled all the way home (mistake: driving myself to and from the doctor; in hindsight, I was in a lot of shock and am grateful I made it home in one piece – my hands were shaking so bad and I could barely see because I was crying and my contacts were all fogged up).

For a few days I had to keep the bandage on and it didn’t seem so bad, although it hurt like the devil.

But then I took the bandage 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. 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.

Mel's PSA: Please Wear Sunscreen

While at the doctor (and even before during the dysplastic nevus episode), I endured a stinging but deserved lecture from my doctor about sunscreen.

I’ve actually been a stickler about wearing sunscreen and covering up since I’ve had kids and been in my 30’s but before that? Sunscreen was never really that important to me. I never did the tanning bed thing but I spent a lot of time outdoors and I didn’t concern myself with hats and sunscreen as a teenager and in my 20’s, thinking the color on my face and arms and legs would be welcome and pretty, which is kind of laughable because I’m so fair skinned, I usually burn and stay pale.

Combine that with the fact that I grew up in a generation where many mothers didn’t sunscreen their children (yes, my mom feels a lot of guilt which is silly since she was one of millions letting their kids blister in the sun in the 70’s and 80’s) and you have a recipe for basal cell carcinoma.

And honestly, based on the fact that I’ve never been a bikini-wearing, beach bound, sun lover spending hours laying out in the sun, I’m certain that if this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.

Mel's PSA: Please Wear Sunscreen

It’s an understatement to say our holiday season was very low key. I didn’t leave my house for several weeks and my 8-year old couldn’t look at me for a long time because he said “I’m not trying to be mean, mom, but your face gives my tummy the jigglies.” I can’t blame him.

I shouldn’t have been self-conscious but I was (and still am a little even though I’ll show you below how amazingly my face has healed in a few short months).

I’ve never worn makeup besides mascara and a little eyeshadow, but all of a sudden, I wondered how on earth I was going to cover this up once it healed a bit? (Spoiler alert: I’m still rocking the no-makeup look because it’s really hard to teach an old dog new tricks.)

That dang swelling decided to settle into the left side of my face and stay awhile. Plus, what do you think about that natural eyeshadow I’ve got going on? Who needs makeup, anyway??

Mel's PSA: Please Wear Sunscreen

You may or may not have noticed the lack of cooking videos over the last few months, but this basal cell carcinoma “experience” has put projects like that on hold and is also the reason, if you know me in person, I became even more of a homebody recluse from December to February than I already was.

It was such a relief to finally get the stitches out. Can you see how my left eye is pulling slightly in the corner?

That bothered me quite a bit for several months – I couldn’t close my eye all the way and my contact always felt like it was going to fall out (annoyingly, I couldn’t wear my glasses because they sat right there where the stitches ended at the top of my nose and it hurt too badly to wear them for a while).

Mel's PSA: Please Wear Sunscreen

As the weeks went on, it was amazing to start seeing the progress of healing, helped along, I have no doubt, by many, many prayers, lots of essential oils and Mederma. (Sorry about the death glare on the right; I take selfies very seriously, apparently.)

Mel's PSA: Please Wear Sunscreen

As I think about the whole process, I’m beyond grateful I was in the dermatologist’s office back in early fall when I had a suspicious mole on my back.

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. Who knows what would have happened had the cancer had even more time to spread?

This experience has made me think a lot about what I’m going to do going forward when it comes to sun control for me and my kids, but it’s also made me realize that by sharing this with you, all of you, maybe I can bring awareness to how important sunscreen and covering up in the sun really is.

I already have a separate cancer history (from seven years ago) and combined with this latest basal cell carcinoma issue (and the data that shows there’s a high chance it will come back in some form on my body, especially my face), I’m determined to make changes to protect the future of my health even though we have been sticklers about sunscreen and hats for well over a decade now.

I’m throwing away my pride and deciding that even if I’m the only one at the lake and on the boat and at the park and working in the yard and at soccer games this summer wearing a large-brimmed hat and carrying an umbrella and donning sunscreen from head to toe and a long-sleeve swimsuit and even a long skirt at times, it’s ok. It’s really ok. It’s a small price to pay to have healthy skin; I certainly do not want to relive the events of the last few months.

Will you think about your sun exposure and that of your kids if you have them? For me? Think about it and consider ways you can protect you and your family by choosing the right sunscreen, wearing hats when possible, and being smart about sun exposure.

After spending countless hours online (why do I do this to myself?) looking at other stories and cases of basal cell carcinoma and MOHS surgery, I’m immensely grateful that in the end, my cancer spot and removal area really was quite small compared to how it could have turned out (my doctor said he’s spent 15+ hours chasing skin cancer around patient’s faces, and I wanted to kiss his feet that I was only there for a couple hours).

It’s miraculous and amazing how the body can heal. If you would have told me last December that I’d actually want to look in a mirror come March, I would have laughed (ok, probably cried) in your face. But I am so blessed that I have healed well and am continuing to heal.

Mel's PSA: Please Wear Sunscreen

Please learn from my experience.

Be smart! And stay safe in the sun, ok?

Love ya.

UPDATE: I cannot even tell you how overwhelmed I’ve been at your response to this post. Your kindness has brought me to tears more than once. More than that, though, have been the stories you’ve shared of your own skin cancer or of your loved ones. Many of you have emailed me personally and commented below that because of this post, you or a family member went in to the doctor and were able to either preempt a skin cancer situation or find out you had skin cancer of your own that desperately needed attention. In all my years of blogging, I’ve never been more impacted by your comments and stories (and again, your kindness). Thank you a million times over.