How I Discovered My Basal Cell Skin Cancer
My Eye Doctor's Comment
I was born with a tiny broken blood vessel located right beneath the corner of my left eye. It's been there my whole life—just a teeny little red spot, barely noticeable. I never gave it any thought, unless I was getting ready to go somewhere special, in which case I covered it up with makeup.
When I was heading into my 40s, I decided I wanted to try contact lenses for the first time in my life. I had taken a physically demanding job as a general manager of an extremely busy restaurant. I was in constant motion, and I had become very aware of how my glasses constantly slid down my nose. At the same time, I noticed that my broken blood vessel was becoming irritated by my glasses sliding back and forth over it. The area had become a tiny bit raised and a bit more red, sometimes developing a tiny scab. Off to the eye doctor I went, in search of contacts.
During my eye examination, the doctor asked how I had injured the corner of my eye. It was such a tiny spot, almost a pinpoint, I was surprised she had even noticed. I explained how I'd been born with a broken blood vessel, and how my glasses had been irritating the area. She seemed to be okay with my explanation, but she recommended that I keep a watch over it. If it continued to crust over or get any worse, she wanted me to see my family physician.
A week after I started wearing my contact lenses, the bump went away. There was no crusting, and the redness was back to normal.
Two Years Later: My Boyfriend's Comment
For two years, there was no change in the appearance of my broken blood vessel. However, my eyes were getting older. My contacts were becoming more of a hindrance than a help, as I now needed bifocals. Out went the contacts, and I went back to wearing glasses.
It didn't take long for the irritation to spring up again, only this time the size had expanded to the circumference of a pencil eraser. I didn't bother seeing a doctor. After all, I'd experienced this before, and it had been easily remedied. All I needed to do was limit my use of eye glasses. Of course, I couldn't actually implement that strategy, since I needed them to see—but I assumed that the cause of the irritation was the same as before. Every now and then I would examine the spot for changes, but mostly I ignored it. I was a very busy woman. Time moved on.
One day my boyfriend remarked about the size of my spot. He thought it looked much bigger. I looked at it and agreed that it seemed to have grown a tiny bit. I wasn't concerned. I had too much to do and didn't have time to run off to the doctor. I put it off for another couple of months, all the while getting more and more irritated with my boyfriend, who seemed preoccupied with it.
Years before I had suffered from a broken blood vessel on my leg. It had begun to bleed just under the skin until I had a “bubble” on my thigh. I had gone to see the doctor. He had told me to leave it alone, as it would eventually heal itself. The only thing that could be done for it would be to cauterize it. He felt it would be better to give it a chance to heal on its own. I followed his instructions, and the bubble went away as the vessel healed. I saw no point in treating the issue near my eye any differently.
After another few months, I noticed that the spot near my eye was starting to grow at a rapid rate. It was also beginning to break open and bleed. I didn't even have to touch it. I could be sitting down reading a book, and blood would start to run down my face. It wasn't long until infection set in. I purchased antibiotics and ointments, which seemed to help, but the size was now almost as big as a quarter. I was finally getting worried. Not only had it gotten much bigger, but the appearance was nothing like it had been before. Now, it was a very dark red color, which makeup could not cover. It was almost like a thick scab, with bumps all through it, and the skin around the edges really hurt.
How I Finally Got to the Dermatologist
That spring I came down with a very painful urinary tract infection that went straight to my bladder. Within 24 hours I was in so much pain I couldn't stand up. My boyfriend took me off to the emergency room. As I lay there waiting for a doctor to see me, the farthest thing from my mind was the sore spreading across my face. I curled up like a baby, praying someone would soon come to ease my suffering. Imagine my shock when the doctor walked into the room, took one look at my face and said, “That's cancer on your face, and it needs to come off yesterday!”
It took a month until I was sitting in the dermatologist’s examination room. I was poked and prodded, and three more suspicious-looking spots were discovered. These three were all easily removed right there in the office, and they were sent off to be biopsied.
The spot on my face, however, was another matter. It had become so aggressive that I had to keep a bandage on it at all times to staunch the bleeding. It appeared to grow more with each passing day. The doctor didn't feel the usual removal methods were possible. She took pictures of my face to be sent to a surgeon who specialized in eye surgery. I went home to await the telephone call from the surgeon's office.
Because the cancer had become so aggressive, I was seen within a week. I had the good fortune to get one of the best eye surgeons in the area, who was also head of his department. He specialized in both eye surgery and cosmetic surgery. As I listened to my options, I was gravely aware of how much I had allowed my condition to deteriorate. Though basal cell cancer is the least deadly type of cancer, and the least likely to metastasize, it can be severely disfiguring if left untreated. I was now faced with the possibility that I would require several reconstructive surgeries to rebuild my lower eyelid, cheek, and nose, depending on how deep the cancer had gone and whether it had attached itself to the bones.
Ten days later I went under the knife. My face would be cut from the corner of my eye, below the lower eyelid on out almost to my hairline. A second cut would start at the same corner and go down alongside my nose, almost to my lip. After the cancer was removed, the flap of skin would be pulled over and stitched. The areas that were not able to be covered would require a skin graft, which would be taken from behind my ear.
Four and a half hours later, I woke up to find that half my face was covered in gauze. I didn't feel any pain. In fact, I couldn't feel my face at all, which left me worrying if I had one left. I lay there wondering how I was going to get through the next eight months of reconstructive surgeries. I wondered if I would end up looking anything like my former self. I wondered how my boyfriend would see me, and if he'd still be attracted to me. I worried that my young grandchildren would be terrified of my appearance.
As it turned out, my worries were unnecessary. Though all indications had been otherwise, my cancer had not attached itself to the bone. My doctor was so skilled in his surgical abilities that he was able to save the rim of my lower eyelid, stitching the skin together with such precision that there is no visible scar in that area. The incision along my nose didn't go quite as well, although it isn't horrible, and the area needing the skin graft is only the size of a half dollar. Though my cheek has a depressed pocket the size of a dime, I've chosen not to undergo any more surgeries—much to my doctor's chagrin. He is a perfectionist and isn't happy to have any scarring of any kind.
A Physical Reminder of the Danger
Part of the reason I chose not to have every last scar fixed is that I want to keep a physical reminder of the danger of putting off medical care for any reason. I was extremely lucky that the cancer had not reached the bone, and that I did not require significant facial reconstruction. As it is, I have very little feeling under my eye and along my nose, and during times of extreme concentrated eye contact, an annoying twitch develops. Although it's an annoyance, I'll take it, any day. It's a small price to pay to still have my sight.
More About Basal Cell Cancer
- Recognizing Basal Cell Cancer
Basal Cell Carcinoma is a slow-growing form of skin cancer. It is the most common type of skin cancer, accounting for 75% of the total.