“But It’s Only Skin Cancer”

by Karsun Hill

Black and white vintage of woman frowning into the camera responding to being told 'It's only skin cancer'
Caption:

Just skin cancer? Really.

Credit:

©everettovrk / Adobe Stock

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It’s only skin cancer

Looking through my Timehop app to share memories on Facebook, I came across the four-year anniversary of my last diagnosis of skin cancer.

When I was younger most people weren’t aware of the dangers of baking in the sun. Even with my red hair, green eyes, and pale skin I was ignorant of how susceptible I was skin cancer. This is why I would sit roasting underneath the Florida sun with baby oil on my skin for hours on end.



But back then, nothing could beat laying out in the backyard, listening to the top-40 countdown and working on my tan. In fact, if you didn’t come back sunburned or tanned after spring break, you apparently didn’t have any fun at all.

Skin cancer kills

I’ve had cancer twice–once was a few years back, and I kept getting annoyed at a mole-like thing on my face, which turned out to be basal cell carcinoma. Just four years ago, I was diagnosed again. This time after doing a punch biopsy of an area on my face that wouldn’t heal.

That one required Mohs surgery, which stands for micrographic surgery. Mohs surgery is a process where the surgeon deadens the area and then uses a scalpel to remove the visible cancerous tissue. After the first surgery, you wait until the lab work comes back. If they’ve removed it all, you’re done. But some people have to go numerous times to have more skin removed.

Luckily, mine was removed the first round, but I had a large wound on my face. The wound made me look like Frankenstein up until it healed: I had a total of 14 stitches on my face. But, I gathered my strength and the first place I went in public with the visible wound was Publix Supermarket. People stared, but no one was unkind.


Skin cancer and depression

Since I’d never had Mohs surgery before, I checked out everything I could find before going under the knife. From Googling stories about people who had it done to watching YouTube videos, I learned more than I needed to know. I also read that some people get depressed after having the surgery. The depression isn’t centered around pain or agony. It’s that you’re having a part of you removed that’s dangerous if left unchecked–and for some, that’s mentally draining.

“Saying my skin cancer wasn't "real" cancer was incredibly hurtful.”

Before and after – never the same

As soon as I was up to it, I posted a photo of my “before and after” photos on Facebook. My “before” photo was taken while the doctors were doing my lab work, and that photo shows my open head wound. The “after” photo showed my Frankenstein stitches — they ran under my eye and across my face.


Read more: Laying bare the emotions of talking about cancer

The funny thing was that after I posted the photo, I saw a very light baby hair across my upper lip and was mortified at my appearance. I thought people certainly would think, “Who cares about the scar, look at that mustache.” I even told everyone that I didn’t have a mustache! My non-horror-loving friends freaked out over the photos, and others sent their well-wishes.

Here’s the thing–when I told everyone that I had basal cell carcinoma again, I said that if I was going to get cancer, that was the kind to get. Basal cell carcinoma is only life-threatening in extremely rare cases, or if it’s left unchecked.

So that’s the good news.

But flash forward to last year, World Cancer Day. A friend told me I should celebrate, but I kept thinking, “it’s only skin cancer; no one will think it’s real cancer.” So, I decided to ask my friends on Facebook. I made a post asking people if they thought whether someone who had skin cancer was a cancer survivor. About half said yes, but the other half said it wasn’t “real” cancer.



The problem is people don’t understand that saying it wasn’t “real” cancer is hurtful. Sure, I didn’t survive a life-threatening form of cancer. I thank God for that. However, it was still an emotional time for me. Even if you think it’s only skin cancer, not a ‘real’ cancer, even though it is, just say it is.

Have some compassion and acknowledge what it is. People think skin cancer is something that can go away with a cream, or at worst to have it burned or cut off. And in many cases, that can be true. I didn’t have melanoma, which is the deadlier kind of skin cancer, but I do have a scar permanently etched on my face.

In fact, I have one from the other surgery, too, but it looks more like a wrinkle. The most recent scar looks pretty bad, but I actually like it. My scars show who I am and how strong I am. When I take selfies, I like to showcase that scar because now, it is just as much a part of me as all of my other features.

There are three takeaways to my story: First, if you have a strange spot that you’re unsure about, get it checked out. Second, if someone you know has any form of cancer, even “just” skin cancer, don’t minimize their experience. They need support too. Thirdly, don’t ever say ‘it’s only skin cancer.’

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Article by Karsun Hill

Karsun Hill is a photographer and freelance writer.

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