Sunday, May 01, 2011

And now Bonnie's annual PSA

       This month is an anniversary for me. Two years ago I was diagnosed with an aggressive type of skin cancer. I had to get 7 surgeries, including getting facial reconstruction and an artery transplant from my arm and placed in my face, and topped off with a week stay at a hospital where I was connected to 8 machines. After the hospital stay I had to live with my parents for the summer so I could have help with home care and visited by a nurse everyday. I don't go to tan beds; I never sat out in the sun at the beach. I have fair skin and blue eyes, and once in a while I would take a walk or be outside in the sun without a hat or sunscreen.

    When I was 22 years old, I walked home from work on a scorching summer day. I was living in New York, only a few months out of college and didn't have health insurance. After getting home I realized that I got some sun and had killer sunburn on my face, particularly on my nose. Once the sunburn cleared a little freckle appeared. I remembered reading an article in a magazine about skin cancer and decided to "keep an eye on it." I even took a picture so I could keep track in case I suspected it was changing.

Most people didn't notice it. However, I was always bothered by the freckle. Part of it was vanity- it was a little brown spot on my nose and I hated it. Deep inside though, I think I knew that it might be cancer but was in denial. This was not something I should be ignoring, but yet for 7 years that's exactly what I did.

      When I was 29 I was struggling through the tail end of my my first year of teaching. It was a  hard job, but I loved the challenge and for  the first time I had great insurance!  During February vacation I decided to go to a dermatologist for the first time. As soon as the dermatologist saw the freckle he told me it looked like skin cancer. After a quick biopsy and a week later I got a letter (a LETTER!!??) in the mail confirming that it was Basal Cell Cancer and  I should immediately set up an appointment to get the freckle removed.

       It wasn't that simple however, the freckle had been there for 7 years and so had PLENTY of time to spread. After a painful 5 hour procedure in which the doctors took samples of my skin, stitched me back up  and had an in-house pathologist study the sample (This is called Mohs surgery ) they sat me down and confessed:

1) This was the most aggressive form of Basal Cell Cancer they had seen in a while, and I was very young, most basal cell patients are in their 70's.
2) Every sample they were talking had cancer cells on all margins. The cancer was pretty much all over my nose.
3) Once I was cleared of cancer I should make an appointment with a plastic surgeon because the damage of the cancer would require me to get my nose and parts of my cheek reconstructed. The face is hard to reconstruct especially the nose area if the cartilage is effected. (At this point I was pretty delirious and I'm thankful I didn't know what lay ahead- I had to get Mohs surgery 4 more times before I had cleared margins.)
4) They had one more test to take. They then took a sample right between my eyes.

    Thankfully that sample was the only sample that did not have cancer cells. The dermatologist told me that if I decided to wait longer to get this checked out the cancer would likely have spread towards my left eye. They would have to remove it in order to get the cancer if that was the case.

     Afterwards, I saw a surgeon and had to leave school for the rest of the year. From February till around early August of that year,  I had some sort of bandage on my face. I could not teach this way and also the art room was considered unsafe for my health in this condition. Currently I am still dealing with the scars- both physical and emotionally that this event has caused, but it has made me stronger and more thankful for what I have. I'm still working through it though, I am still scared every time I get a little sun and worry that I might get cancer again- a common fear for former cancer patients.

I took a walk without sunscreen. Such a simple thing. (well that and taking FOREVER to get it checked *___*  )

      Skin Cancer is the most common type of cancer, and it is also the MOST PREVENTABLE.

     I was lucky because I had a type of skin cancer that doesn't metastasize to other parts of the body (it only damages the skin it spreads to) if I was diagnosed with Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, I would be fighting for my life.
     So my message is simple: Protect your skin from the sun. Go to a dermatologist once in a while (at least once a year if you can) just to keep it in check. If detected early, a simple biopsy is usually all that is required.

Whew! All right! Stepping off the soap box and getting back to the art! :)


Kelly said...

I am so proud of your strength Bonnie! You have gone through a lot and many people would have let this wreck them. You pushed through and are continuing to do so. We all have challenges that test us in life and some are huge wake-up calls such as this one. It takes time but one day you will know what this all was for and be proud of all you have accomplished.

Bonnie Branson said...

Oh Kelly, you inspire me too. I am proud of how you turned your experience into a positive. I get ideas and "Umph!" from your blog every week.

(haha Umph! was the best way I could think of that "GET UP AND GO GET'EM!" additude.)