As people who have survived skin cancer will tell you, the diagnosis, treatment and uncertainty of it all is one of the hardest things they have ever experienced. While doctors continue to aggressively find cures for the disease, there are some precautions that you can take every day to keep the skin cancer at bay. We interviewed a survivor of non-melanoma skin cancer, Kelly Schmalz Evans, to provide you with an exclusive of her reaction, how she overcame the disease and how her life has changed since the diagnosis.
When were you diagnosed?
I’ve been officially diagnosed two times with non-melanoma skin cancer on my face. I have also had a few more scares in between. I was diagnosed the first time when I was in college shortly after my 21st birthday. The second time was when I was 33.
At what stage were you diagnosed each time?
The first time, it was a spot between my eyebrows, and the second was a spot on my left cheek. The type of skin cancer I had was basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and rarely spreads and is not life-threatening.
What had been your lifestyle as it concerned sunbathing and tanning beds?
I am (was) a true sun worshiper. I spent my childhood at the pool, and I became a lifeguard when I was sixteen. In the spring, I always went to the tanning bed to get ready for the summer months. I did this throughout high school and some during college. After being diagnosed the first time, I am ashamed to say that I still went to the tanning bed occasionally, and I even ventured out without sunscreen.
How was the cancer initially detected?
Being of Irish decent with light skin that burns easily, getting my skin checked yearly by the dermatologist was something that I did religiously. I just never thought (despite my risky behaviors) that skin cancer would be something I was ever diagnosed with.
How did you feel when you first received the news?
At first, I was shocked and of course scared. But, I had a great doctor and great family support, and we moved quickly to fix the situation. The second time I was diagnosed was somehow scarier. I think it’s because I had been so diligent with wearing sunscreen and hats, and of course, avoiding the tanning bed like the plague. I was surprised that I got it again and to be honest, really frustrated.
Are there others in your immediate family who have been diagnosed with skin cancer?
My sister has had a few scares but no official diagnosis. But, I have had a handful of cousins and aunts that have suffered various levels of skin cancer – no one from melanoma.
Describe your treatment process.
I had Moh’s Surgery both times. It’s an outpatient procedure in the office. I received local anesthesia around the area of the tumor, and I was awake during the entire procedure. While completely numb in the area of the surgery, I did still feel it – especially afterwards.
Were there any programs or services offered to you that would help with the treatment process?
After surgery, my surgeon assessed the wound and discussed options for cosmetic reconstruction. Unfortunately for me, in both cases, insurance did not cover this cost. While the surgeon did perform a small reconstructive surgery the same day and at a follow-up appointment, the majority was done cosmetically with lasers and chemical peels to help heal the scar.
There were no specific services available to me although talking to people would have been very helpful. It felt like an isolated event and one that you don’t talk about in social circles. With breast cancer, there seems to be a ton of support, and it would be great if similar support and education was available for skin cancer.
Did you face any obstacles during your treatment process?
I would say the biggest was the cosmetic part – specifically that it wasn’t covered by insurance. So, I had to pay out of pocket to heal the scars, and after 10 years, they are still visible. I am currently trying to undergo cosmetic treatments to finish clearing them up.
What message would you like to provide others who don’t consider sunscreen or other protective methods when outdoors?
Wear it. There are a ton of options available to you. Check with your dermatologist or a skin care professional about your best option. Wear hats. Even on a cloudy day, wear sunscreen and a hat. And, reapply. That’s the biggest thing. It’s just not worth the risk. Trust me.