Skin Cancer. Of course I’d heard of it. I had known a few people who had had it. My mom’s friend’s sister. Someone’s grandparent. It was something that happened as people got older, if they had spent years worshipping the sun. Right?
I didn’t even know the different “types” of skin cancer, I thought it was all the same, if you see a mole start to change shape or colour, or something I vaguely remembered my dermatologist telling me at my yearly appointments, then get it checked out. It would go in one ear and out the other. Something that happens to ‘other people’. People who grew up in warm climates with year round sunshine. Not a girl who grew up in Canada, had access to direct sunlight for 2 months out of 12 and was pasty white at best.
Sure. I’d played competitive tennis and trained in Florida twice a year. But I wore a hat and sunscreen. Sure, I’d succumbed to peer pressure in high school and went with my friend Tammy to try out a tanning bed so I’d be brown and glow-y for our high school prom, much against my mother’s wishes. Maybe I even went more than once, but I’m pretty sure I used one of those questionable towels to cover my face. I didn’t want to get wrinkles after all.
I had that one bad sunburn in 1988 when my mom left me at the neighbours pool for the day and no one put sunscreen on me. I have the freckles on my shoulders to prove it.
I might have even slathered on tanning oil one summer while studying abroad in Italy, because, well, no one really told me not too. But skin cancer was never on my mind.
Two years ago, I was blissfully pregnant with my second baby, another boy. My first son, Ryder, was just over a year and I was settling into my new life, as a mom, wife and resident of one of the most beautiful, sunny places on earth, Santa Monica, California. We lived on the beach, and throughout my pregnancy I’d enjoy long walks on the sun-drenched boardwalk, taking in the daily volleyball games, rollerbladers and cyclists, wearing my wide brimmed hat most days, to prevent those dreaded pregnancy sun spots.
I loathed the annoying red marks that would dot my skin throughout each pregnancy, excess blood volume, my dermatologist would tell me. She said I could laser them anytime, even while pregnant, if they made me self concious.
One day, I was at my aesthetician and she pointed out a red mark on my forehead. She told me I should get it looked at. I sighed and told her what my Doctor had told me, that it was due to my pregnancy. Nonetheless, I went to my Doctor and asked to get everything lasered and asked her to pay special attention to that ‘red mark’ on my forehead, the one that looked to me, like all the other red marks all over my body.
After we zapped all those spots, the one on my forehead returned, as if we’d never done anything to it.
I returned to my Doctor and we decided, just for the sake of it, to biopsy it, and she assured me, it would come back negative. It didn’t look like anything to her, but for peace of mind, we would just check it out.
So we did.
I left her office that day, feeling carefree and filled with joy. I was 30 weeks pregnant and about to meet my new baby boy soon. We had found a house not far from the beach, which would become our new home for our growing family. My swelling belly made me feel beautiful and feminine and skin cancer was the last thing on my mind.
I’ll never forget the day I got the call. I was 31 weeks by now, my husband was out of town,and I driving with my older son on our way to enjoy an early dinner just the two of us, at my favorite restaurant, trying to cherish the last days that it would be just us.
Skin Cancer. I had skin cancer.
My heart sank and tears quickly sprung to my eyes. My son asked what was wrong and I smiled and said I was ok.
I called my husband and my mom. I told them not to worry. I told them not to tell anyone. I was scared, embarrassed, confused and in that moment, I felt so helpless.
My Doctor explained to me I had Basal Cell Carcinoma. A type of skin cancer that if removed should require no further treatment. I would need surgery, and then I would have a 50% chance of getting another one over the next 5 years.
The following weeks were a blur. Doctor’s appointments, consultations, meeting with Mohs Surgeons (surgeons who specialize in the precise surgical technique to treat skin cancer), googling, way too much googling. My mom flew in to help me, to be by my side. We decided the best thing would be to have the surgery when I was 35 weeks pregnant.
My livelihood is working on camera and this was when I’d have the most downtime and would not have to see anyone or be working. I could hide this.
My fears. What if it was huge? What if I was left with a disfiguring scar? What if all this stress put me into early labour. What if I got more?
The surgery went well. The sweet surgeon held my hand and looked sympathetically at my huge belly before she began cutting it out.
My baby boy was born a few weeks later, full term and beautiful.
I however had months of healing ahead of me. I did NOT feel beautiful. All I saw when I looked in the mirror was my new jagged scar, still so red and fresh. I saw a tired, new mom, who wasn’t sleeping and hadn’t yet dealt with the emotional scars that accompanied the physical ones.
It is only now, 2 years later, almost to the day, as my baby boy turned two, that I am able to reflect and re-tell my story.
It’s an important story to tell. I was 33. And I got skin cancer.
Today I am able to look in the mirror and feel beautiful again, my scar has healed, it’s almost undetectable. I’ve healed. I wear sunscreen daily, it’s the first thing I put on in the morning. I have the coolest collection of hats, which I wear religiously. I go to my dermatologist every 6 months and sometimes in between if I see anything questionable.
And mostly, I will educate my boys. One is olive skinned, like his father and the other is fair, like me. He already has his first mole, on his scalp. I will always watch him like a hawk. I will empower them to love the sun and all the amazing things the outdoors has to offer, while learning to protect their skin. They will know more then I did. And I am so grateful for that.