Handling skin cancer without the panic
Soon after moving to New Orleans in the 1990s, I began an almost daily ritual of running through the stupendous Audubon Park. I’d loop the outer ring multiple times, occasionally heading down past the zoo to give my regards to the Mississippi River and spy a few more southern live oak trees. A large part of that ritual was making peace with the brutal heat, humidity, and blazing sun.
On a mid-September morning after waking up to a particularly unpleasant sunburn on my face and neck, I headed up to the (now-defunct) K&B drugstore on South Carrollton Avenue to pick up some aloe gel to cool the burn. All the Gen-Xers out there will certainly recall slathering on baby oil and baking in the sun until your forearms were lobster-colored. We were SPF-ignorant, to say the least.
I headed to the back of the K&B where the pharmacist spied me riffling through all those gels. “What’d’ya need, cher?” she asked. (Oh, how I miss those New Orleans terms of endearment). After she got a good look at my face, she scolded me. “Use some sunblock, dawlin’. Don’t do this to yourself again.”
As the years went by, I kind of, sort of heeded my New Orleans pharmacist’s advice. But by the time we had children, I started taking the sunscreen/sunblock thing very seriously. I spray paint my kids with sunscreen even on the cloudiest of summer days. We know better.
Fast-forward to another mid-September morning in 2021 – about 30 years after I first ran that loop in Audubon Park. I noticed a small, flaky section on the side of my face, hidden under my almost fully gray (thanks, COVID) sideburn. For the record, I was already getting annual skin checks. The flaky section had parked itself on my sideburn for over a month. Something felt off. I headed over to my dermatologist, who took a sample and sent it into the lab. Ten days later, the doctor told me that it was not cancerous, but we should still keep an eye on it.
After another six weeks without any healing, I called the office to make another appointment. It was November 2021, and I was pretty peeved when I was told they wouldn’t be able to fit me in until March 2022. In this day of knowing how important it is to be your own advocate, I promptly found a new dermatologist.
“I’m going to take a sample of this, but I’m 99% sure this is cancerous,” said my new dermatologist after examining that flaky area. Her hunch was verified by the lab results, and I was scheduled for Mohs surgery 10 days later.
Named after Dr. Frederick Mohs, who developed the technique, the surgical procedure removes basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. Here are the basics: the surgeon removes the cancerous section when you’re under local anesthetic. After the layer is taken, a Mohs histotechnician (I’d love to have that occupation on my resume) freezes it, places it on a slide, and thoroughly examines it. If they didn’t get all the cancer, the surgeon removes another layer until the process of cancer cell removal is complete. They wrap up the procedure with a combination of dissolving stitches and external stitches that are removed a week later. After multiple follow-ups to the office, my dermatologist and surgeon are confident they nabbed all of it.
In the grand scheme of things, this is all very small potatoes. After all, I come from a family where almost every woman has battled breast cancer. I self-mockingly created a daily alarm on my phone and titled it “Scarface” to remember to apply silicone tape, which helps soften the visible scarring. I also apply a sunblock skin cream to my face and neck, regardless if the sun is out. And now I have an almost daily debate with myself about whether “Scarface” is the “best worst film ever made” or the “worst best film ever made.”
Look, while I don’t make it a habit of being prescriptive, I can say without a doubt that you should put an annual skin check on your calendar. And if you see something on your loved one’s skin, have them get it checked out. I kid you not when I tell you my dermatologist always offers me a lollipop. I have quite a collection. And if you get checked out as well, I promise to dig into my stash for your favorite flavor.
Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his indie rock show “Under the Influence” and his jazz show “Kind of Pool” on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio and @kindofpoolradio.