*Note: Graphic pictures in this blog post might be disturbing to some readers.
I am cancer free now.
A few months ago, after waiting nearly 9 months, I finally had my Mohs cancer surgery at the hospital.
My cancer journey began on February 2, 2016 when I met with a dermatologist who diagnosed basal cell carcinoma – skin cancer – on my upper lip. The surgery she recommended was called Mohs surgery after the Doctor who developed it in the 1930s and is the single most effective technique for removing Basal Cell Carcinoma. My research confirmed that Mohs surgery has the lowest recurrence rates, highest cure rates, and best cosmetic results of any skin cancer treatment. Okay, sold.
I waited several weeks beyond the expected surgery date of three months without hearing a word from the hospital so I phoned the surgeon’s office, who told me to phone the Mohs clinic at the hospital. The kind receptionist assured me that the wait time wasn’t three months but more like 6 months! After 6 months had come and gone, I went to my family doctor and asked her office to call the clinic and find out what’s going on – did they forget about me? We were informed that the wait time was now 8-9 months! Then one sunny day in late September, I received a letter in the mail from the hospital notifying me of my surgery appointment – on the only day that I was scheduled to fly to Moncton for a weekend meeting! After all this waiting and waiting! But it was easy enough to change my appointment to the next week.
The day arrived and I had to be at the hospital, with an ‘escort’, by 7 a.m.. My daughter Nellie and I drove into the city to my other daughter Kristi’s house near the hospital and parked there. Then Kristi drove us to the hospital and was on-call all day in case Nellie needed a break. I was informed, in the letter, that I must bring someone with me or my surgery would be cancelled.
By 7:30 a.m., the staff started trickling in for the day – I have no idea why they made the six of us patients come at 7 a.m.! The nurse explained the process: one-by-one, each patient would be called in for their first surgery, wait for lab results, then maybe more surgery, and this would go on all day until the last patient was treated. I went in for my first surgery at 9:30 a.m.
The staff was SO young! My Mohs surgeon and the plastic surgeon were as young as my own kids! Extremely pleasant and happy people. Everyone was positive and outgoing. I was invited to participate in cancer research which was studying the effects of viruses to kill cancer cells. I signed up immediately – if my cancer cells can help cure cancer, well it was a no-brainer – why wouldn’t I! Sadly, only 2 of the 6 patients that day agreed to participate in this research. My surgeon was almost giddy about my cancer because the procedure she was about to perform was uncommon. She asked if she could take pictures for teaching medical students and I agreed with the condition that she show me and email them to me.
When all the permissions were done, I laid back in the ‘dentist-like’ chair and she froze the area with local anesthetic with about 9 needles. Okay, you can stop shivering now. After the first one, I barely felt the others. Then the cutting began. The doctor, Jillian, chatted about her upcoming trip to New Zealand and her love of photography. I was able to talk in between excising layers of cancer – it was actually a pleasant experience. The wound was cauterized and a wad of gauze placed over it – I was asked to press firmly and sent out to the waiting room. My cancer was then sent to the hospital lab for immediate examination. Mohs surgery is done in stages while the patient waits for lab results.
I waited for 3 hours. I tried to eat lunch that we brought and even tried to drink with a straw but found it difficult with a part of my upper lip missing! Finally, I was called in for Part 2. There was still more cancer in my face. I guess the small spot I could see was more like an iceberg with more cancer under the skin. Another 7 or 8 needles to freeze the area again and more cancer and skin was removed and sent to the lab. Out I went, covered by a bigger piece of gauze, this time with a very droopy lip because half of the right side of my upper lip was also removed and went to the lab.
After another couple of hours of waiting and reading Readers Digest cover-to-cover, my lab results were back and I was called back in. Almost all the other patients were done for the day and had left. I felt bad for Nellie who loyally waited for me and even chatted with the other patients and their family members. This time the news was good – Kate got all the cancer! It was time for reconstruction of my face. There was a hole the size of a loonie or silver dollar and I had absolutely no idea how the plastic surgeon was EVER going to patch me back together again. I asked to see it and was handed a mirror. Wow. Oh well, I thought, at least I don’t have cancer anymore even though I’m going to have one mother of a scar.
The surgeon, Jill, and the plastic surgeon, Kate, and I discussed how to patch me up. The two doctors talked like they were decorating a birthday cake with all kinds of creative ideas using my current smile lines and face characteristics. Then I was given another 10 or so needles of freezing.
I had the option of having a skin graft from another area of my face or neck to patch the open wound but I opted for only one place to heal (thank you very much). The doctor suggested that she do a bit more cutting along my ‘smile line’ to enable her to pull up my skin and make a kind of flap to cover the gaping hole in my face. The inside of the lip is very stretchy, so she made me a new upper right lip by pulling up some of that skin. I had around 48 stitches, almost half of them inside.
I was given instructions for care of my wound and we had to stop at the store on the way home to pick up supplies. I wish they had given us this list so I could purchase them ahead of time and go straight home after a long day in the hospital. The pain wasn’t too bad. Even after all the freezing came out, it was manageable but I took a tylenol anyway for good measure. Two days after surgery, I had to remove the bandage. I wasn’t looking forward to this but it went very well. I had to change my bandages every day for the next week until I went back to have my outside stitches removed. I was told to apply vaseline with a Qtip to slow the healing of the stitches which results in a less visible scar.
I was treated like a rock star when I arrived at the clinic for my stitches removal – the doctors called other doctors and nurses in to see the fantastic surgery and reconstructive repair. They were very pleased how well it was healing and took more pictures for medical education. I was told that I wouldn’t need to return but that my scars would take a year to heal. I’m supposed to massage the scar tissue every day and wear sunscreen faithfully because the sun will change the colour of my scar.
The other day, I went to lunch with friends that I hadn’t seen for 6 months and they had trouble finding the scar. So I guess, all is good.
I’m cancer free!