IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Spent Years in the Sun, Never Wore Sunscreen, and Paid the Price

I used to think I was impervious to skin cancer because I have olive skin, until my lips started bleeding.
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Lindsey Goldstein
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I used to think I was impervious to skin cancer because I have olive skin, until my lips started bleeding.
Stay safe in the sun!

Stay safe in the sun!

So you’re old enough to remember that song that was supposedly based on a graduation speech given by Kurt Vonnegut? You know the one. It’s sage advice set to a groovy beat in the background? The last piece of advice given is “and always wear sunscreen.”

Well, I’m no Kurt Vonnegut, but I’d like to share my experience so you might think about slathering it on before you flop on your perfectly laid-out towel on the beach or by the pool, book or Ipad in hand, ready to burn yourself into a deep chocolate tan.

Years ago, eons if you will, people just didn’t liberally apply sunscreen. It was something that occasionally you submitted to when your mom or dad practically pulled your bathing suit off to keep you from wriggling away into the surf that beckoned. 

And hats? Pashaw. Each summer my mom would cart us off to the beach for hours at a time each day to keep us entertained and satisfyingly, I would be a bronzed little bunny by the end of the summer.

Later, I played tennis every day, never applying a smattering of sunscreen because well, I had dark enough skin not to need it, right? And I loved that at the end of each summer, I would have tiny pink vestiges of sunburn peeling off on the tip of my nose. Cute, huh? Not so much.

Cut to years later. I was in grad school talking to someone when I noticed she was staring at my lower lip. “What’s that?” she asked. I pulled out a pocket mirror and examined the defect. A small hole had opened on one side of my lip. Panicked, I called my dad, who despite being an obstetrician/gynecologist is always my go to “freak out” man.

“Dad, I have herpes.” I was sure. He paused, asked rationally why I thought this and then debunked my theory quickly telling me that herpes didn’t occur where my sore was.

“Go see a dermatologist if you’re worried.” The hole closed up so I forgot about it and my panic.

Two years later, it reopened. The requisite phone call was made to my Dad again.

“Go see a dermatologist. I don’t know,” he said, his irritation thinly veiled. So I went. I forget her name and it’s not relevant anyway, but she took one look at the now larger lesion on my lip and clicked her tongue.

“You lick your lips too much. Stop it.” I left her office, chagrined and still worried. A few weeks later, I was talking to a colleague when she shrieked.

“There’s copious amounts of blood dripping from your lip!” I wiped at it with my hand and surprised, noted she was right. Back I went to another doctor. He put me on antibiotics saying I had a terrible infection. Five days of Cipro later, nothing had changed except the fact that I now had a raging yeast infection from the Cipro. I sought out another doctor. One look at me and she narrowed her eyes.

“I’m gonna wanna biopsy that.” 

The room started spinning, the Earth tilted. She guided me to a table and instructed me to lie down. I think I may have cried a little as well as called my mom. A chunk of lip later and several stitches, I went home and waited for the biopsy results. 

They came back as something called “squamous cell carcinoma in situ.” Basically that was a fancy way of saying pre-cancer. 

The doctor assured me that it was nothing to get too excited about, but said she still wanted to remove it. My husband accompanied me and watched as she scraped a couple layers of skin off my lip leaving a nasty looking sore in its place. 

It took about two weeks to fully heal and looked revolting in the meantime. I was so self-conscious whenever talking to anyone as I felt them staring at my lip much as one would when talking to a person with a giant zit on their face.

Self-portrait of my lips.

Self-portrait of my lips.

And so began my five year good times with skin cancer. Not the “scary” kind, mind you, merely squamous cell carcinoma. Because despite the scraping, the pesky lesion returned, this time as actual cancer. 

My lower lip has been subjected to multiple needles in it to numb it before procedures, two excisions, countless cryotherapies, and finally the doozy of them all, I underwent the Moh’s procedure a year ago. 

The Moh’s is a fun procedure that allows the doctor to remove little slices of tissue and look at them under a microscope, continuing to cut until he/she can’t see any more cancerous cells. 

I tried not to faint when the nurse held a ruler to my lip after the second cut muttering something about two centimeters. Two centimeters! I quickly calculated that my whole lip couldn’t have been more than four centimeters wide. After the procedure, my lower lip was so swollen, numb and stitch ridden that it felt like someone had tied a five pound weight to my mouth and let it dangle. All for what? Ignorance really. Fortunately, the body is miraculous and what looked like Hannibal Lecter’s chew toy finally healed.

No one could have known when I was a teenager what my future would hold. There was no crystal ball and to be honest, it could have been a lot worse. Much much worse. 

As my latest dermatologist very cheerfully said, “This could have gone on undetected, metastasized and we’d be cutting off your whole lip instead of a chunk.” Yes, life’s sliding doors can always be better or worse, I know. 

But what I can do is put the word out there. WEAR YOUR SUNSCREEN most importantly, get regular check-ups and if something looks weird, have a dermatologist look at it. Do not pass go, do not say next time, do not think your skin is dark enough to fend off the possibility of cancer. 

I got off easy, I guess. My otherwise ample lower lip is a trifle smaller now. But I get to keep my life, see my daughter and son grow up and enjoy the sun another day. Wearing sunscreen of course.