I’m a fair person. I’ve always been the kid in the class picture whose paleness was blinding. I burn, I freckle. There is no tanning for me. I like to tell people that my two colors are white and red, and I vacillate between the two each summer or anytime I go outside. I have gotten a sunburn while sitting in the shade (swear to God). I can be outside for 10 minutes without sunscreen and find myself burnt and peeling soon after, because I am not meant to be in the sun. The great irony is that my younger sister will tan to a lovely brown, and I’ve always been left hiding in the shade wherever I can find it. Maybe that’s why I don’t like summer.
Or maybe it’s because I was right to be afraid. I was at my annual dermatologist appointment earlier this summer, and I pointed out a small rough patch on my nose, about the size of a pin head. “What is it?” I asked? “Well, it’s not cancer” she said, “But it’s not not-cancer. It’s pre-cancer. We can take it off no problem if we freeze it and then I’ll give you a cream.”
Oh God, I’m going to die.
Ok. It wasn’t quite that dramatic. But when I went to the pharmacy and picked up my prescription cream, I googled it. It turns out it’s quite toxic – the labels says to wash your hands thoroughly and to not use your hands to apply it if you can. I used a q-tip. And it’s used for people with cancer AND pre-cancer. Cool. So I’m undergoing a cancer treatment even though I don’t have cancer (yet).
Bonus: one of the side-effects is that it leaves the skin “unsightly”. And I had to apply it twice a day for at least two weeks, which meant once in the morning, with cream on my nose as I go to work, and then again in the evening, soaking in that cancer-fighting goodness as I go to sleep. Since I’m not supposed to touch it, I can’t touch my face, and I can’t wear sunglasses as I drive to work in the morning. I warn my fellow reference librarian that if my nose becomes unsightly, it’s just because of this treatment, and not because I’m letting myself (my nose?) go. We laugh.
A week later, she tells me, “I hate to say this, but Maggie, your nose is getting a little unsightly.”
I didn’t need her to tell me. It was a red and crusty spot the size of my fingerprint on the side of my nose. Not somewhere I could hide it, and I couldn’t cover it with makeup. I was sure that people were looking at it and wondering. No one asked. Probably no one wanted to.
Four days after I finished my course of treatment, the Boy and I attended the wedding of a sweet friend of mine. I was finally able to put makeup on to try and cover up what had become a very raw and tender nose that had only just stopped oozing pus. I did a pretty good job. And then we walked outside into the mid-July heat, and everything melted. I put sunglasses on my face, and it was all gone. All that effort to cover red and angry with a gentler skin-tone for naught. I applied a little powder that I’d stuck in my purse, bit my lip, and then forgot about it for the rest of the night.
My mom noticed it when I got home that night (she’d come over to babysit the girls while we were out) but didn’t say anything. But my dad asked about it the next day after we got out of Ghostbusters and it was clearly not the impression left on the bridge of my nose by sunglasses. I explained calmly what happened, and managed not to cry, an impressive achievement for a delicate flower such as myself.
And that was it. All the comments I got. My nose slowly began to heal, new skin regrowing in the 2-3 weeks that the internet promised me it would. I run my finger along the side of my nose occasionally now – a month out from the end of my treatment – and there is no rough patch. That little spot, which had bugged me for years was gone. I had defeated it.
I’m sure this is not going to be my only encounter with a pre-cancerous spot, or skin cancer in general. But now I know that it can be ok. I can survive. I’m doing the right things. I will get through this.
So – what are the lessons here that you can learn?
- Wear sunscreen. Always.
- That means every day, when you’re putting on your makeup. I admit to not putting it on my arms and legs and stuff, but I do wear sunscreen on my face every day. Sometimes it’s in the form of a makeup product, and sometimes it’s a sunscreen that’s light enough to go under makeup or at least feel light on my bare skin.
- When you’re going to be outside in the sun for a period of time longer than say 20 minutes, you should be wearing sunscreen. If I were you, I would choose one from the Consumer Reports list of recommended products. Personally, I like No-Ad for my body, and Neutrogena for my face. You may be tempted by the ease of sprays (I know I am), but you probably aren’t putting enough on yourself to get the full SPF protection that way. Heck, you’re probably not putting on enough sunscreen period!
- Let the sunscreen sink into your skin before you go out into the sun, into the pool, or get sweaty. It takes a full 30 minutes for the sunscreen to be effective. Make smart choices.
- Reapply. After 2 hours. After you swim. After you sweat. Do it. No complaining.
- Don’t ever ever ever go tanning, especially not in a tanning bed. I know this has nothing to do with my personal story, but tanning beds especially are a CARCINOGEN. They’re on the same level as cigarettes. Don’t do it.
- Visit your dermatologist yearly. She can look for the spots that are dangerous and help you take care of problems that may come up. I was hesitant and had a 5 year gap between visits a while back, but I’m so glad I went.
And that’s it. If you want to learn more, the Skin Cancer Foundation website is a great resource. Because while I may have only had pre-cancer, I really don’t want to have full blown cancer, and it’s important to know best practices for prevention.