For the last forty odd years, it’s been one thing after another for me but I’m not that unusual really. To be human is to experience setbacks and go on with your life. Many of us have a litany of surgeries and illnesses and traumatic events that shape us into who were are. Years of relative calmness can go by and then. BAM! Some experiences are merely tiny inconveniences. Some were big ass roadblocks with half-completed bridges that are so wide we have to get a good running start to attempt a jump.
Which brings me to the cold sore that wasn’t. I had never experienced a fever blister/cold sore/icky thing in the middle of my bottom lip and come to find out, I still haven’t.
Over several years, I’ve had little places on my lower lip, nothing to be excited about. They would come and go and I always attributed it to being chapped spots. A little extra Neosporin or Vaseline and they were gone in a jiffy. I did once have a small spot that a doctor spied during a routine check-up and decided to “freeze it off” because he thought it might be suspicious and after a tiny slice was taken and examined, it seemed the right thing to do…especially after I had fessed up to my sun-worshipping youth. The procedure bleed like hell but hurt very little. Ironically, it felt like a bad case of sunburned lips! I was given a cream that made my lips burn and peel away like bark off a Birch Tree . I was told it would take away any pre-suspicious spots and so I had hot lips for the duration of the cream regimen… But, no harm no foul, type of hurt really.
It healed, nothing else showed up and I was told to limit the sun worship and wear a stronger sunscreen.
Fast forward to now…. over ten years later. I got a sore spot on my lower lip. At first, I thought I had taken a bite out of myself in my sleep. But then, it developed the look of a small open blister. I did the most normal thing anyone would do under those circumstances. I researched it online. I saw pictures and it sure looked like a cold sore to me so I bought a few things at the drug store and proceeded to wait it out. I used, Blistex, Abbreva, Oragel and good old Neosporin and while I got some relief from the burning, the damn thing kept bleeding and getting bigger.
I put up with it 2 months. Eating was difficult. If I could put a forkful in my mouth, without touching my lips, I could eat it…which pretty much limited my diet to “sucking through straw” food. Nothing from a spoon because I would have to use that portion of my lip to rake the spoon and that was very un-pleasant. Drank lots of protein drinks with a straw and ate soft things I didn’t need to take bites out of. Iced tea felt great, so I drank it a lot but still used a straw. You get all sorts of looks drinking hot coffee from a mug with a straw But I got my caffeine in any way I could!
I read that cold sores could get infected easily and since mine was smack dab in the middle of my bottom lip, it was in a perfect spot to get wet and hit all the time and it was hanging around burning like hell. I thought it might need some professional help. Now cold sores are viral and you can’t but anything antiviral without a prescription, so I decided to get an appointment to see a dermatologist for some drug therapy.
Did I think it might be something more than a cold sore? Ok… you got me. Yes, I knew there could be a remote possibility that it was a reoccurrence of the “suspicious little devil” I had many years before and it was briefly in the back of my mind as I drove to see the doctor. But it was WAY, WAY, WAY in the back in my mind.
So, I’m sitting in the exam chair, telling my life’s story to the nurse in preparation of telling it all again to the doctor when the real exam was performed and the nurse says, “So, how long is your history with lip cancer?”
I stuttered in shock for a brief time as memories of that other doctor and the bark-shedding cream came back from ten years ago.
I explained what I had gone through and the nurse took copious notes. Now, the nurse could have been just swinging for the fence and hitting all bases, doing a thorough a set pre-exam questionnaire of my life but when the Dermatologist came in and after quick pleasantries asked, “So, were you diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma ten years ago?”
That’s when my cold sore became much more.
Biopsies were taken. Surgery has been scheduled for 6 am, May 30th because the doctor is pretty confident in the diagnosis of the biopsy and since I’m the idiot who thought it was a friggin cold sore to begin with, who am I to argue. We are waiting for confirmation from the lab but like I said… and I’m not trying to be a Debbie downer here… but, well, odds are, I will be having surgery.
The surgery of choice now, for facial cancers especially, is Mohs Micrographic Surgery. It involves removing a skin cancer one layer at a time and examining these layers under a microscope immediately after they are removed. This procedure allows for a close examination of each layer of skin to detect cancer cells. It also allows a minimal amount of good, clean tissue to be removed while making sure that all the cancer cells are removed.
A local anesthetic is injected into the area before the surgery (That is going to hurt gangbusters!). The doctor then begins to remove the skin cancer and a small amount of healthy tissue around it, one layer of skin at a time. Each tissue layer is prepared and examined under the microscope for cancer cells. Surgery is complete when no more cancer cells are detected. I’ve been told to allow a half day for the procedure but it’s kind of a ball park time guess. If I’m lucky, it will be one pass of the knife and ADIOS CRAPPY CELLS!! I’ll be home in an hour or two. But if it takes longer, well, that’s ok with me. Take all the time you need Doc! I want it done right and if it’s necessary, I’ll worry about that later.
The doctor told me to bring a book.
The great thing about this surgery is that it has a success rate of 95-99%. If I could have those odds at a casino, I’d be a b-zillionaire.
In what I am sure was a total attempt at putting me at ease, the doctor said that if I was going to have cancer, this was a good kind to have. The Mohs Specialist in their office is supposedly a wiz at putting things back together with minimal scarring and without the need of a plastic surgeon and reconstruction. And by all the info they gave me, she’s right. I’m thankful. Really, I am. One of my co-workers was quick to point out, “Well, It’s just skin cancer.”
When it’s MY body, there is no “just “ kind of anything…and the only good kind of cancer would be the never-existing kind.
I won’t lie. As much as I would like to say I’m not scared, I can’t. I am scared. And pissed at my youthful stupidity in frying myself in the sun so I wouldn’t look pale and unhealthy. Getting my skin so tanned that I looked Tahitian. We used to compete as to who was getting the darkest, for pete’s sake. Talk about Karma!
And it’s all I can do right now to not dive into a gallon of super chocolate chunk Haggendaas.
So now, I wait. And count myself fortunate to have gone to the doctor as soon as I did and then go shop the bookstore for an appropriate waiting-for-the-next-layer-to-be-cut-away book and some SP1,000,000 sunscreen.
There will be updates.
NOTABLE ADDENDUM: Among all the achievements and accolades in the Mohs surgeon’s biography, it lists that he is an accomplished violinist. Not sure why, but that gives me a bit of a moral boost!