Let’s Talk: Skin Cancer


When I started my blog, it was more about fulfilling that creative outlet I have on a regular basis. It was never supposed to be too serious and never about my little fight with skin cancer and so this post a little different from what I usually write about. There’s no fancy tutorial. No pretty pictures of smiling faces at just the perfect angle. Lot’s of run on sentences, vulnerability and honesty. I’m always honest but this is a little different in the sense that I am not gonna sugar coat it. It’s been over a year but the experience is still a little raw. And sure… one could say I might be a little over dramatic and that’s totally fine – remember: my blog is called Riva La Diva not Riva La Calm. But it’s how I felt, it’s how I feel and this is my story…

BACKGROUND

I’m from Las Vegas, Nevada. I’ve lived in sunny Southern Nevada my entire childhood. I grew up in the sun. I was a young child in the 80s and a teen in the 90s. I spent many weekends over the summer at the lake. I spent many weeks playing in the pool. Sometimes ALL DAY LONG. I played sports outside. I swam on a swim team that practiced indoors but traveled to the beautiful sunny California for swim meets that lasted all day long in the sun. I burned a lot as a kid but also tanned really quickly after. Sometimes, those first day sunburns turned into a beautiful tan the next day. I’m also Hispanic. So needless to say, Skin Cancer was not on my radar. It only happened to the whitest of white people, old people, or people with a family history, right?

The Spot

After I got married, started a family and wised up a little, I wore sunscreen a lot more. If I was going to be outside I was wearing the stuff. We were living just outside of Los Angeles when I spotted this strange pot hole looking scar in my nose from an old zit I had in the fall of 2014 – maybe November? When January of 2015 came along, I noticed this scar was still not completely gone – it was not healing. Was the air super dry that winter? Was the skin care products I was using at the time too harsh and not letting it heal? I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on. Maybe it was skin cancer…? Maybe not. Maybe it was my paranoia getting the best out of me. So I found a scar ointment to help heal this pothole thing in my nose.

December 2014
Let's Talk: Skin Cancer

Months passed. The pot hole seemed to somewhat patched up… I guess… maybe..? The hole was gone, but, oh gosh, the scar was THERE. Around the same time, my husband had a job offer to work for Microsoft. My focus was now on moving away from a city and home that I loved to Seattle, Washington. I joked often with my SoCal friends and family that being cold, pale, and consistently wet will be my new reality. In a way, I was right. I have been there for 2 years now, I am still always cold, mostly wet, and generally pale. But you know what I noticed? There was also a big pay off for living in the Pacific Northwest – everyone has beautiful skin. It’s practically ageless. No sun spots or fine lines for women my age. I had skin envy for my 50 year old women friends! Everyone had beautiful skin which made me focus on my skin once again after I settled in to my new area. I invested in a new exfoliator that received great reviews and upped my skin regimen. When I started exfoliating my skin in the mornings, something strange happened…. this super teeny, tiny little pore on the edge of my little, old pot hole scar started to bleed. Was I exfoliating too hard? It was weird. Back to my ointment. But after it healed, rubbing my nose or washing my face with a hand towel would also make it bleed a little. Also weird. Another thought entered my mind…. is it getting bigger? Were the tiny bleeding pore holes making the scar bigger? What the heck is going on?

To be honest, I was kinda afraid to get it checked out. Cancer scares the crap out of me. I had a young friend die of cancer (not skin cancer) a few years previously… it rocked my mental world; for a while I thought every bruise and bump was cancer. The anxiety I was experiencing with my friend passing away, selling a home, moving, making new friends and now settling into a new environment was throwing me off. It was March of 2016 when I finally decided to get my scar checked out. But it came in way that I am most grateful for because I think I would have panicked if it happened any other way….

I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day and not to go full religion on you, but that specific month at church seemed, to me, to be all about personal trials during talks and lessons. I teach the young women (14-15) in my church and it was like all the assigned lessons were about trials. One Sunday, I remember a missionary standing up and giving a talk about his brother… he shared an experience where the younger brother could not use his legs for some reason and the reatment to get better was very painful. When the brother mentioned this to his nurse, she responded “I know it hurts and it’s very hard, but it’s not too hard”. I’m not sure why that resonated with me that specific Sunday but it did and it still does. I thought about those words often the next day, I remember driving home from my kid’s school, looking in the rear view mirror, and this very calm thought entered my mind, “go get your nosed checked out”. I think if I didn’t receive that very firm and yet calm prompting, free of paranoia, I would have never made the appointment. Needless to say, I called my doctor as soon as I got home.

Doctor Visit

That week, my family doctor referred me to a dermatologist who took a biopsy out of my nose that same day. When I had my biopsy, I was super freaked. The nurse I had was named, Stephanie. I love Stephanie. I remember her looking me in the eyes and said, “your doctor is one of the best in the valley. He will get this out.” There was peace in that bold statement.

And a week later the test results arrived…

I had Basal Cell Carcinoma on my nose.

The thought of having cancer freaked me out. Cancer is a scary word, What if it spread? What if it was all over ther place? Needless to say, I made the soonest available appointment to have that thing removed with MOHs treatment. It would be 2 weeks after my biopsy and the day after Easter when I went in for treatment. They kinda prepare you for the worst… prepare to be there all day for your appointment…. Have someone there with you… You will be exhausted afterwards… You might need a skin graft…. yada, yada, yada. I showed up bright and early Monday morning with my husband and I was scared and calm all at the same time. It was weird. Those thoughts of “it hurts and it’s hard but it’s not too hard” kept replaying in my mind.

Treatment

Now, if you ever get skin cancer make sure they do MOHs. It’s awesome because they can take very little skin away until they get all the cancer out – there is no guess work and they can remove it all. The part that sucks the most? You are awake for the whole thing! We didn’t know how deep it was or how wide it was and so the process starts with them marking a circle around this funny looking scar on my nose. Then they covered my face with a small sheet that had a hole in the middle for my nose to fit through. Numbed my nose in 2-4 different spots with a needle and started cutting skin away with this small knife looking thing (according to my husband). Then they remove the sheet, covered my nose with gauze and said, “Hold this here. We are going to get the removed skin tested to see if we got it all and will return in 30 minutes”.

The morning of March 28, 2015 – day of surgery.
Let's Talk: Skin Cancer

The nurse (I lucked out and had Stephanie again) returns 30 minutes later with semi-good news… The margins were not clear. There was still cancer along the edges BUT it was not deep. They would not have to cut deeper than what they started with – hooray for that!!

And so the process begins again, numb, cut, test, repeat.

Each time Stephanie returned to my room with bad news and my heart sunk lower and lower. HOW MUCH nose would they continue to cut off my face. For years, I had never loved the shape of my nose and now I was wishing I gave it a little more love. When the nurse returned to my room on the fifth time, I didn’t want to hear the bad news. I closed my eyes, put my head back in my chair and said “just numb it already and let’s get this over with!” But this time was different! Stephanie says, “look at my face Riva, I am smiling, we got it all out!” That was the sweetest sentence!

Next up? They need to repair the hole in my face. Bad news? I needed a skin graft. If you haven’t noticed yet, your skin around your nostril does not wrinkle very well, so they needed to get skin from a different location… that location was right in front of my ear. So they move me into a surgical room, still awake friends,  prepped both areas – the donor site and my nose, and the process of obtaining a skin graft begins! That was kiiinda not fun. They numb the area but unfortunately, they do not numb the sound. The sound of flesh cutting is the worst, it was my personal torure.  I tried to distract myself with church hymns, stories, scripture verses – NO LUCK. However, an extra hard long division problem definitely helped! I am crying, my husband is crying and I can hear my doctor telling me how lucky I was to keep my nostril because it came REALLY CLOSE. They cut the graft down to match the size of my new pot hole, shave the excess skin from underneath, soaked the skin piece in some antibiotic and patched me up. The man should be a sewist, those stitches were small and perfect. Then they bandage you up, give you prescriptions to fill, directions for after surgery care and send you on your way.

Healing

When I left that day my biggest worry was: will there be a scar? YES. What if the donor does not attach? To which my doctor replied, don’t touch it, do not bend over, do not lift and do not exercise. This was so hard because I have 4 small kiddos at home. Additionally, I could not exercise for TWO MONTHS. That was even harder. Exercising was my stress relief and so was junk food. They usually balance each other out and now it did not… needless to say, I am still burning away the 20 extra pounds I gained last year… gah!!!

I walked around with bandages on my face looking like this for 10 days…
Let's Talk: Skin Cancer

Then they remove the bandages, applied lot’s of Vaseline to the site for scar prevention, slaps a band-aid on top and then my doctor proceeds to give new care instructions… “Don’t rub it. You can get it wet but the water has to gently run down. Gently pat to dry. Any questions?” My mind was blank… then they tell you to come back in 4 weeks. Questions didn’t come until after I saw my nose for the first time later than evening…

The next day is always better. Two days after is even nicer.
2 Days after the removed the bandages, April 6th:
Let's Talk: Skin Cancer

I uncontrollably cried when I say my nose for the first time. I felt like a monster. I felt extremely ugly.
It scared my kiddos. Then thoughts started to rush into my mind….

is this healing right?
it is supposed to look like this?
what’s that smell?
what’s all that white stuff?
oh crap, my baby just bumped into my nose, will the graft not attach?
I am ugly, what will my husband say?
what if it comes back?

I babied the CRAP out of my nose before my follow up appointment. Then I did something stupid… I googled “skin grafts”. I needed to figure out what was “normal” as far as healing. Images of half noses removed and ears cut off are images my nightmares are made up of. Since that was so scary, I ventured on to Pinterest. Sweet Pinterest. Nothing ugly ever appears on there. Just crafts, recipes, fashion, home decor, and pretty things show up there… right? NOPE. Skin grafts were kinda scary, too. I have a weak stomach for all things medical… the moment I saw a hip replacement surgery in high school was the minute that I discovered I never want to be a doctor. I was dying to find something helpful. I just wanted to find someone who was experiencing what I was going through. That’s when my bestfriend told me about the blog, Mel’s Kitchen, she had a similar experience and documented it on her blog. I loved it, it gave me hope. But she didn’t have a skin graft and she was only a few month post op. I needed MORE INFO and I hjad no source. I felt alone, so, I called the nurse every week trying to figure out what was normal and what was not.

April 15th, with Vaseline (green circle) and without.
It looked more or less like this until my 4 week post op visit:
Let's Talk: Skin Cancer

Four weeks’s passed and I made it to my 4 week check up. This would be the appointment to find out if my skin graft attached. They mostly do and my graft was looking goood. The weird smell was coming from the dead skin healing from my nose. My doctor rubbed it all off which was so weird because I was so careful not to touch it and then he said continue to use vaseline until it was completely healed and return in 2 months! Then a few more times throughout the year…

4 Week post-op visit. My good looking skin graft ATTACHED. Happy day, April 26th.
No makeup on scar but the little bit of mascara I had smeared from happy skin graft healing tears.
Let's Talk: Skin Cancer

2 months post-op with my hubby, no makeup on scar.
I am lucky to be married to a man that constantly builds me up:
Let's Talk: Skin Cancer

3 months post-op, no makeup:
Let's Talk: Skin Cancer

5 Months post-op with makeup:
Let's Talk: Skin Cancer

7 Months post-op, no makeup:
Let's Talk: Skin Cancer

11 months post-op with makeup and in PARIS:
Let's Talk: Skin Cancer

13 months post-op, with makeup. Some days the scar is more noticeable than others and most of the time I don’t notice it anymore. Best part? I can have a say about where I want to stand in a photo – I have a skin graft scar  and you can count on me pulling the “let me get my good side” as often as I possibly can! At my one year check up, I was told there were no visible signs of skin cancer! YAY! (BUT the possibility is always 50%):
Let's Talk: Skin Cancer

Quick Sun Cancer Facts

Over a year has passed and I publicly tell my friends to wear sunscreen on Facebook ALL THE TIME. So let me tell you what I share with my friends….

  • Wear sunscreen, if not for yourself then put it on your children. Slather the stuff all over them. EWG.org is a great place to find healthy sunscreen choices because not all suncreens are made equally – ZINC is the magical ingredient you want to use. It totally sucks to wear but they are coming up with some amazing zinc that’s a little more sheer, expect to spend more time blending it in.
  • Skin Cancer does not discriminate. I had Basal Cell Carcinoma and that particular one loves alll skin colors, black, white, brown, yellow, green, orange, purple, blue, whatever, it loves everyone.
  • UV Rays bounce. Just because you are sitting in the shade or wearing a hat does not mean you are protected. THEY ARE RAYS. They bounce of the floor onto you your face. Wear sunscreen.
  • Clothing is also a great protector against harmful rays, if I am spending a lot of time outdoors, I will wear a long white shirt.
  • You can get skin cancer on your eyes – wear UV protected sunglasses.
  • ReAPPLY sunscreen. Most of us have smart phones – set a timer to remindyou to reapply your sunscreen.
  • Buy bottles of sunscreen and put it everywhere.

For the rest of my life, no matter how many times my skin cancer comes back, I have a 50% chance of getting it again. I have to wear sunscreen everyday for the rest of my life, even if I do not leave my house and I have to wear gloves to protect my hands because my windows are not UV protected. Lame but my new reality…

What I wish I knew

  • It’s okay to worry about that cancer spot on your face. It’s not vain, YOU ARE NOT VAIN. Dang it, you have cancer slowing trying to kill you and it started ON YOUR FACE. Don’t you dare feel guilty about that, you already have enough on your plate.
  • It’s going to heal. Not fast but it’s gets better with time, I promise. Be patient.
  • TRY every zinc-based sunscreen and find which one you love the best. I have my some favorites but not 100% committed to – I am always on the look out. Remember use ZINC.
  • You are not a failure of a human being because you got cancer.
  • People are ignorant, you were, too – DO NOT SWEAT IT.
  • Makeup is a life saver, the new skin care line I am using is amazing, and the things they can do cosmetically at your dermatologist is AWESOME! If you look closely, there is small dent still in my nose. My doctor says they can put a little filler in there to fix it – hopefully with time, my doctor thinks it will resolve on it’s own.
  • Surround yourself with good friends, family and loved ones – ignore the rest.
  • People will say stupid stuff, I got a couple of “that’s what you get for living in California”… just ignore them. Sometimes, people are really stupid.
  • YOU ARE NOT UGLY.
  • Do not be ashamed – I’m not sure why I feel that way. But I did.
  • You will not always be afraid of the sun. It gets better, promise.

Hopefully, this will give some people reasons to take better care of their skin or children’s skin and for those experiencing the same thing, I hope this is a little helpful?

xo/Riva

11 Comments

Add yours
  1. 1
    Laura

    Thank you for your brave vulnerability. I am so glad that the cancer is gone and you are beautiful still. There is so much value in your telling of your story. I grew up much like you and know that I will probably face the same issues. I now protect my kids like crazy. Thanks again!

  2. 3
    Pati Palmer

    Riva, I also had a basal cell on my cheek. It was a little round circle the color of a pencil eraser. I also thought is was something trying to heel. I finally got into my dermatologist for my annual review. He took one look and said you have a basal cell carcinoma. That is the one to get if you have to get it. It is slow growing. I had Mohs also, but my cheek was pretty soft and they could pull the skin together and stitch. I was told to rub it like crazy after a few days to remove scar tissue. The opposite of a graft. And, they only made 3 trips back into the area which made me totally in fear, but 5 for you? Ugh! So g lad you are OK. I still want to photo you for the fit book. I decided to finish writing first. But let’s see how you are early fall and if you are still up to it. Take care. Pati Palmer

  3. 4
    Genevieve

    Your story…
    Eye opening, terrifying, hope giving and VERY educational! Thank you for sharing. When God needs you to hear a message….He won’t leave it alone until you finally listen. I am so happy that you came through victoriously Riva ❤️. You are a blessing.
    Geni xo

  4. 5
    Kristine J

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I had basal cell carcinoma form in a chicken pox scar on my forehead when I was 37. I grew up in So. Cal and burned often, was always outside and my parents have had skin cancer but were a lot older than I was. I too, took over a year or two to finally go to the dermatologist because I was so scared it might actually be something. I ended up having MOHS surgery after the initial biopsy showed in had spread. It was pretty traumatic for me when they closed up my forehead and for a few years I had a bump where the top and bottom of the scar had been closed. I recently went to a new dermatologist who was able to lengthen my scar and take out the bumps and it seems to be healing quite well. Skin cancer is such a scary thing. I am seeing that more and more of young people in their 30’s and early 40’s having it. I am always telling my friends to get that spot checked and I recently noticed a spot change on my husband and it was pre-melanoma. If you have questions, have it checked!! Thank you so much for sharing your story as it helps remind me that people really do understand how scary of a trial this can be.

  5. 6
    Bonnie

    Riva! Thank you so, so much for posting all the pics and details! I love you forever!! And thank you for sharing your feelings too- i still just want to cry about it most days but I know I won’t feel like that forever. It’s hard but not too hard, right?! XOXO, love you girl!

  6. 7
    Laura

    Thank you for sharing your story! I’m an oncology nurse in the Willamette valley, and we get skin cancer here, too. Your scar looks terrific! I wouldn’t notice it if you didn’t point it out.

  7. 8
    Tomasa

    Thank you for sharing your story. I just want to give you a big hug! I have learned a little more about skin cancer by reading your post and will keep the information in mind for prevention. I am so glad you have recovered. I am Hispanic too and sometimes take liberties because I think my skin can take the sun much more than a very fair white person. You have proven that not to be the case. Everyone must take precautions! You are still very beautiful (inside and out). All the best…

  8. 10
    Zanna

    In July I had MOHS for squamous cell carcinoma on the top of my head…Lovely. Happy to be healed but it will take some time for the bristles on the top of my head where they had to cut my hair to grow back…

    • 11
      Riva

      Hello Zanna, so glad you are on the mend! I had a friend that had one on the top of her head and needed a scalp reconstruction to close the site – no fun. I never knew that you could get it on your scalp! ugh, this skin cancer thing sucks. Fingers crossed it’s just the one spot. xo

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