I’ve come to this page over and over again over the last several weeks, and I’ve stared at it, knowing I should write something. Anything. But each time I ended up shutting it down and looking somewhere else, putting my attention on something else. Anything else. I avoid dealing with difficult things, apparently.
Writing is a bit more difficult this month.
Back in April, I found out I’ve got early stages of skin cancer. Still pre-malignant, thank God, but a concern nonetheless because cases like mine evolve into malignant stages if left unchecked. As a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned girl whose mom slathered sunscreen on me all my life and drilled into my head that the sun could kill me if I didn’t take precautions… this kind of came as a shock.
The part that is so shocking is where the damage is; it’s a place that I never really gave much thought to, but looking back now – it was really idiotic of me not to. I mean, it’s so obvious and I bet many of you already knew.
It’s on my lip.
I can’t believe I never once in my 35 years thought to put sunscreen on my lips. Never. Once. Now I don’t leave the house without it. We’re very lucky that it was caught so early on; I’d almost just let it go. It was just a tiny, harmless (or seemingly so) patch of dry skin on my lip.
It didn’t hurt, didn’t tingle, and more than anything it was just annoying. I covered it up with lip gloss or lipstick so that no one else even knew I had it.
Thank God for moms, right? I made a trip north to Pennsylvania to my hometown. My mom noticed it, asked me about it, and insisted I get it checked out, because she knew someone who had it and let it go and it became this horrible cancer… But of course my mom always knows someone with any ailment you can think of; she’s a nurse. Initially, I thought, Yeah, fine. I’ll do it so you’ll let it drop. It’s nothing. They’re going to look at me like I’m an idiot for wasting their time, and tell me to use more lip balm.
My Primary Care Manager (fancy word we use for doctor in the military world – and possibly the civilian world too, but I wouldn’t really know because I haven’t waltzed around there for about ten years) took one look at it and told me he wanted me to see a dermatologist ASAP. He told me it looked like sun damage. I still didn’t think it was serious. I still thought I’d get to the dermatologist and he (or she) would say, “It’s harmless. Just dry skin. Moisturize it and you’ll be fine.” Or: “Here’s a prescription medication to cure the dry skin. It’ll be gone in about a week.”
It still didn’t hit home when the dermatologist took a biopsy of it a few days later. That biopsy hurt like the Dickens, too. He essentially sliced off the section of my lip where the dry patch was, leaving me with a wound a bit larger than the size of a dime. It bled like crazy and had to be cauterized, then swelled like mad, and I was afraid to go out in public. What would people think when they saw it? People would stare. I knew they would. It’s human nature. Staring. Whispering. Making assumptions. I’ve done it, too; that’s how I know. Several coworkers sincerely thought someone had punched me in the face. I had to explain it so many times… not fun. Not at all. But they didn’t know, and they were concerned for my safety. Still, I didn’t want to go out in public without my husband by my side if I could help it. My rock, my protector.
The dermatologist called with my results almost three and a half weeks later. All that time I kept thinking: No news is good news. Right?
I was at work when I got the call. Actually, I missed the call but he left me a voice mail. I shook as I listened to it, because what if?
I listened to it three times.
I felt sick to my stomach. I had to finish my shift. One coworker who doesn’t even like me very much took one look at my face and asked me what was wrong. I didn’t know if I should tell her; she’s the store gossip hub. In some weird way, I thought if I wasn’t the only one who heard those words, then maybe she would say, “Oh, my so-and-so had that. It’s no big deal. They’ll just…” And it would all blow away and I’d go back to being fine.
But she didn’t.
Her voice softened and she looked at me for the first time in two years like she actually felt sorry (i.e. cared) for me. She even said, “Wow. I’m sorry.” But it still wasn’t real to me. (And by the end of shift the rest of my team had heard what happened, but it’s not like I didn’t expect that.)
It was months before I had the courage to go back for a follow-up. I kept thinking the dry patch would go away. But it didn’t. It stayed. Even though he’d cut off the top several layers, it was still there. I’d gotten into the habit of trying to hide it. I’ve become much more self-conscious of it since that first biopsy.
You couldn’t see it if I pulled my lip inside my mouth, so I took to trying to hide it.
But it was still there.
I didn’t always hide it. I didn’t want alllll my pictures to be of me sucking my lips inside my mouth. What a goober, right? My husband took me on a bucket-list trip to London in July. I put off my follow-up until after that trip, because I didn’t want to look like I’d been punched in the face for it. Lord knows how that would have gone for my husband and all those judgmental stares.
I returned from London and procrastinated, still. And if it wasn’t for my mom, I might still be putting it off. It took a couple of weeks to actually get back in because, as it is a military hospital, all the old doctors were PCSing to another location and new ones were settling in. I finally got in a little over a week ago. They’ve started me on a topical chemotherapy treatment. I was scared of it because the pharmacist looked at me like he was about to tell me my cat died. He said, “Don’t touch it, it’s very toxic. You have to use gloves or a q-tip to apply it, and make sure you don’t get it anywhere else.” Gulp.
I put it off for a couple of days. I fought with myself over it. It’s not an aggressive issue; the doctor said I could wait until the fall because there would be less risk of getting further sunburn – the medication makes it more sensitive to the sun. But I have a few weddings to attend in the fall, and it’s my favorite time of year, so after turning to my family and friends to talk some sense into me, I sucked it up and started.
An old friend privately messaged me, offering to pass my story onto his mom who is a nutritarian (forgive me if that’s incorrect) who would know what alternate medications (i.e. natural & holistic, not toxic) I could try instead. Yes, I told him. Definitely. Chemo scares the hell out of me, and I didn’t even know it came in a topical solution. My phone went a bit wonky for a little while, and suddenly one day I had 5 voice mails out of the blue. I haven’t listened to any of them, yet. That’s part of another problem/issue/quirk of mine, but that’s for another post, another time.
How does it feel? The cream makes my skin tingle. Sometimes it stings. That’s to be expected, though, when you’re applying something created to kill skin cells. That’s what it’s doing: it’s killing off the skin that it touches. The hope is that we will successfully attack all of the damaged cells and be left only with healthy ones.
It didn’t start to crack until about 3 days ago, and the following day it bled for the first time. Even when my store leader checked in on me to see how I was doing, I was still in this I-don’t-want-to-think-about-it stage. It’s sensitive and sore, now, scabbing over; I feel like I look like I’ve got a fever blister or something that might really gross people out, especially since I work with food. What I have is not contagious, but the general public doesn’t know that, and I don’t feel up to telling everyone about it. At least, not verbally. Writing is my thing. And…
I have to get it off my chest or I’m going to implode; so,
thank you for being here. ❤
It hurts right now. Kind of a lot. And I still have 5 more days to get through before I can end the applications. Luckily my store leadership has been nothing but supportive and understanding. They’ve offered to give me all the time off I need, but I know that if I take time off, I’ll just fall into a downward spiral of self-doubt and fear. I keep working because I keep busy and when I’m busy, I’m not thinking about the lip. I only think about it when it hurts while I’m working, or if someone asks me about it.
I’ve been quiet on social media the last few days because I don’t know what to say. Anyone who knows me knows I normally spend more time on Facebook than I probably should. It’s not often that I don’t have anything to say.
Five more days. Do me a favor? #SPFYourLips
If I help even one person prevent this from happening to them, then this is all worth it. Because all of this is not just pain and damage on my skin, it’s weighing on my depression and anxiety, too. (But – like I said earlier – that’s for another post, another time.)