How I Survived the Other Kind of Skin Cancer

A young woman faces down Basal Cell Carcinoma

It was literally staring me right in the face. Each time I looked in the mirror, I would see this small white cyst arched above my left eyebrow. It developed suddenly when I was in middle school, but over the years, it never changed in shape or size. It never bled; in fact, it never budged.

For the longest time, I didn’t think about it. After all, I was a healthy, young woman with an olive complexion and no one in my family had ever had skin cancer. I also hadn’t spent much time lying out in the sun. Instead, I stayed away from the beach and wore sunscreen daily. In September 2006, at the age of 23, I decided to get the bump checked out by a dermatologist. The doctor assured me that it was only a benign facial cyst and I had nothing to worry about. No one has a perfect face, I thought, so I let it go.

Then about two years later, out of nowhere, I began to experience a strange fixation. I don’t know why, but suddenly I just couldn’t stand having the cyst on my face anymore. Each time I traced my finger over it, I felt a strong urge to have it removed. So in October 2008, I went to a different dermatologist for a second opinion. He also thought the cyst was harmless, but when he began excising it, his suspicions grew. He only partially removed the cyst and sent the tissue to be biopsied. Two weeks later, when I came back to have the stitches taken out, his medical assistant brought me the biopsy results. My eyes locked on to the words “atypical basaloid neoplasm” and “recommend complete removal.” I had basal cell carcinoma. My stomach dropped. How could I possibly have skin cancer?

I consulted with five different physicians. Some of them were skeptical of the biopsy results because I was young (I was 25; most basal cell carcinoma is found in people over 40), and I had no family history of skin cancer. So when I found myself in the office of Dr. Clifford S. Perlis, the director of Mohs Micrographic Surgery at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, I was hoping he would tell me the same thing. He had his own pathologist review the materials from my biopsy, but the results hadn’t changed. He advised me to have the cyst excised through Mohs surgery, a technique that precisely removes the tumor, layer by layer, while preserving as much healthy tissue as possible and minimizing the scar. The cyst, however, had grown deep enough to threaten the nerve tissue above my left eyebrow. This meant that during the procedure, I could possibly incur nerve damage and lose some, or all, of my eyebrow.

Dr. Perlis recommended Dr. Scott M. Goldstein, a skilled oculo-facial plastic surgeon who could reconstruct my eyebrow after surgery. During my consultation with Dr. Goldstein, he showed me images of what patients looked like after having Mohs surgery, before surgical repair. In some cases, patients were missing chunks of skin where the skin cancer once existed. I was terrified of what my face would like after this procedure, but I felt I didn’t have a choice. I would have to put my trust in these two surgeons. On February 19, 2009, I had both operations performed in one day. After the Mohs procedure, I’d lost one third of my eyebrow and had a hole in my face nearly the size of a quarter. Thankfully, Dr. Goldstein proved to be a miracle man and was able to put my eyebrow back together with minimal physical scarring.

Today the scar is slightly noticeable, but it’s a reminder that as summer approaches, every young woman—regardless of skin type or family history—needs to be more aware of her skin and body. I once thought that skin cancer could never happen in someone as young as me; now I know differently. If something doesn’t look or feel right on your body, listen to your instincts. In my case, they eventually saved my life.

Have you ever needed a biopsy? Chime in below!

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