Cancer, was never something I expected to become a part of my daily life, but life is full of surprises.
Last night, I asked my husband’s permission to share with you that he has skin cancer. While Basal Cell Carcinoma does not often metastasize, it is still a dangerous type of cancer and can be very easy to miss. This may be my most personal post ever. Jim and I have kept this to ourselves over the past 5 years because we’ve felt that it’s a private matter; my hope is that sharing his story may help others catch and possibly even prevent this type of skin cancer because it is not as easily recognizable or as talked about as melanoma.
In 2005, when Jim was 22, he was attending college at the University of the Virgin Islands and he noticed a small irritated patch of skin on his shoulder, no larger than a pencil eraser. It wasn’t anything like the “dark, unusual shaped moles” doctors advise you to be weary of, that may possibly indicate melanoma, but Jim decided to have it looked at anyway. His doctor in the USVI misdiagnosed the spot as ringworm and gave him a topical cream to treat it.
Fast forward 5 years: Jim was 27 when I met him and on his first day in Hawai’i I took him to Sandys. I had noticed and asked him about the spot on his shoulder, which had grown to the size of a quarter but again, simply looked like irritated skin. He said he’d seen a doctor about it, but the topical cream severely burned the skin, so he didn’t use it and that was the end of the conversation.
A few months later, I was standing in the grocery store, waiting to checkout and decided to flip through Cosmopolitan magazine while I waited. For those of you who don’t know how I met my husband, I read about him in Islands magazine. There was an article about his life as a marine biologist who worked for the Cousteaus in Grand Cayman and I contacted him when I was considering moving from Hawaii to the Caribbean. Magazines appear to mark significant moments in my life, because as I was standing in the store, flipping through Cosmo, I landed on an article that pictured different kinds of skin cancer to be aware of…
My heart sank.
I called Jim immediately, I knew in my gut that the mark on his shoulder was cancer.
When we went to see Jim’s new doctor, she took one look at him and immediately sent him to a dermatologist. Jim’s new dermatologist was shocked. I remember sitting in the room, feeling like I’d just been hit by a bus, when the doctor exclaimed, “This is amazing! You are the youngest patient I know of to have such extensive Basal Cell Carcinoma!” Jim’s dermatologist is great, he believes in taking preventative measures and investigates every unusual spot or mark on my husband’s skin, “just in case”… he just sometimes lacks a little tact.
This morning, I got up at 5am to bring Jim to the airport. He’s had 3 MOHS surgeries to remove 4 basal cell carcinomas over the past 5 years. Last year, the day after we got married, we found a fifth one.
The first spot was the largest, the cancer was much larger than the quarter sized patch on his shoulder indicated and he now has a scar extending from his neck to his shoulder from the surgery. They removed cancer that was the diameter of a ping-pong ball from his temple and he had two spots on his clavicle as well. The cancer being removed today, was one he found on the top of his head. Concealed by his thick hair, it’d gone unnoticed during my regular inspection of his skin.
The wild thing about all of this, is that it’s possible this could have been prevented had Jim worn sunscreen and protected his skin during his younger years. Sun damage is what causes Basal Cell Carcinoma. Basal Cells in your skin are essentially responsible for renewing dead skin cells. Exposure to the sun can cause DNA damage that corrupts your Basal Cells and prevents them from performing their job properly, which can lead to cancerous mutations in your skin like Basal Cell Carcinoma.
It’s possible that simply wearing SPF 30+sunscreen, or protective clothing, could’ve prevented Jim’s cancer. Since Jim’s diagnosis, we both have become much better caretakers of our bodies. Our skin is our largest organ; it lives and breathes and protects us to the best of its ability, isn’t it fair that we do what we can to protect it too?
We don’t talk about his cancer often because honestly, no matter what kind of cancer it is, it’s scary. But, if there’s a chance that this post encourages you to have that strange spot looked at, or to wear sunscreen (zinc oxide reef safe versions like Badger Balm or Alba please) then exposing a part of our lives that we have chosen to keep quiet for years will be 200% worth it.
Wear your sunscreen. Cover up. Be kind to your body. Your skin is beautiful exactly as it is - naturally. Whether you’re alabaster, beige, tan, dark… embrace yourself for who you are, not who you think you should be. I spent half of my life tanning under the Hawaiian sun because kids my age would tell me, “You don’t look half Mexican.” For some reason, I took that as an insult and tried to change my skin tone to match my heritage. The sun damage I inflicted upon myself out of insecurity simply wasn’t worth it. Someone told me recently, “You would look better with a tan,” to which I confidently replied, “I look best when I’m healthy.”
Watching my husband go through surgery after surgery has really opened my eyes, it’s opened both of our eyes. We work in the ocean, under the sun daily and we refuse to give that up, but we take precautionary measures to protect ourselves now; measures I wish we’d taken a long time ago, but it’s never too late to start a new good habit.
Jim will be home at 8:30 tonight, most likely with a few stitches in his head and a little less hair, but hopefully cancerfree again.