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Article: Skin Cancer Awareness Profile

Skin Cancer Awareness Profile

Skin Cancer Awareness Profile

Brush On Block user Katie T.Editor's Note: This blog post is by Brush On Block user Katie Tillman, who shares her personal story of skin cancer. Some of the photos are a little graphic and the intent is not to scare you into wearing sunscreen, it is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and skin cancer is scary. So consider it a reminder of WHY you wear sunscreen, and encouragement to be more diligent about it going forward. Katie was lucky that she didn’t wait longer to see the doctor for her skin cancer, and now she repays that luck by spreading the word about just how important it is to protect your skin from UV rays. We sincerely appreciate her sharing her story with us. Follow Katie @shenanigansbykatie on Instagram.

A Message To My Younger Self

"I never knew anyone who had skin cancer before I had mine. Being a child of the 80’s and 90’s, sunscreen wasn’t talked about much. We weren’t urged to wear it except when we went swimming. I grew up with a pool and was either swimming or laying out next to it to get a tan. We rarely reapplied sunscreen, and if we were “laying out” we were using tanning oils.

When I was 15, I started using tanning beds, I had fair skin and burned horribly in them. When I started driving, I had a convertible and my friends and I would ride around with the top down without even thinking about wearing sunscreen. We would get sun burns and not think much about it.

I was only 36 when I found my skin cancer. At first it was a small pin head size, like the size of a black head, but it grew quickly. I noticed the spot was changing and getting bigger, even kind of scaly and occasionally bleeding. I decided I probably needed to have that spot looked at. I quickly realized getting an appointment with a dermatologist wasn’t that easy–I wasn’t established with any dermatologist, which meant I would have to be seen as a new patient. It was going to be at least another month before I could be seen. I was put on a cancellation list after I explained what had been going on. I had my appointment on October 10th, during that appointment they evaluated the spot and decided to do a “shave biopsy”. About 10 days later they called and told me that I had Squamous Cell carcinoma. I didn’t even know that that meant, the nurse said it’s a form of skin cancer. I needed to go in for an additional biopsy for further testing. Eventually it was confirmed I had an aggressive form of Squamous Cell, that is typical seen in patients in their 70’s. This aggressive form of Squamous Cell was tracking into the nerves and into my top lip. The current dermatologist could no longer help me and would need to refer me out to one who specialized in a procedure called MOHS (also called Micrographic) surgery.

I met with the MOHS surgeon about a week later, and by this time, the spot had grown even larger. The surgeon told me I needed surgery sooner than later. Squamous Cell is literally like the tip of an Iceberg, or a tree. Meaning it can be very small on the surface and very large beneath the surface. You see a tree sticking out of the ground, but what you don’t see is that under the ground, the roots are twisting, turning and growing. That’s what my skin cancer did–it grew deep and wide under that spot. My Squamous Cell had twisted, turned and grown so deep that it was well into the muscle. I had two passes of MOHS. It was a very long painful day, not to mention the amount a fear and anxiety that came along with it. I was left with a hole the size of a nickel after the second pass of my MOHS surgery. In order to close the hole, I had to have what they call a lip flap. 20 stitches later the hole was closed and ½ my top lip was gone. I lost my Cupid Bow and philtral columns, things that give the lips their distinctive shape. I cried–it was a very hard to look at.

Katie T. Skin Cancer Journey

The healing process was physically and mentally very challenging. Over the next several months, I had to learn to eat and drink different ways. I could no longer bite into a hamburger, sandwich or slice of pizza. Eating was challenging and even some words where hard to say because my upper lip no longer moved the same way. I could only drink from a straw, I could no longer whistle and even giving my kids little kisses on the cheek was difficult. I become very distant, sad and never wanted to leave my house. When I did leave the house, I would always try to make it short and quick so I wouldn’t have to see many people. By summer I was really forced to be outside more because my son played baseball and daughter played softball. Being outside in the sun brought on a whole other level of anxiety that no one warns you about. No doctor warned me that having my face cut on would be so traumatic. Even with sunscreen, a wide brim hat, UPF clothing, umbrella and seeking shade as much as I could, being out in the sun was terrifying for me.

I had to wait a year to have any sort of reconstruction done on my lip, but after the trauma of the MOHS, I realized that reconstructive surgery was not an option for me. The best course of reconstruction for me was through Cosmetic Derma Fillers. I found an amazing PA-C who specialized in more natural looking results, and we were able to create a more normal looking lip. I was very pleased with the results and have this done every 2 years to maintain the shape.

It will be six years this November since my Skin Cancer was removed; I am in a much better place physically and mentally. I can eat normally now, and don’t have to use a straw when I drink. My top lip still doesn’t move like normal, but it doesn’t bother me. Sunscreen and sun hats are an everyday thing for me now—every day, every season. I don’t leave the house without a sunscreen, even on cloudy days, and I reapply throughout the day, even if I am just running errands in my car. I am proud to say that both of my children have also made sunscreen and every day, year-round habit. Skin Cancer prevention has become something I am very passionate about. I have become known as the Sunscreen Mom at the ballfields. You can see me making sure all the kids have sunscreen on and even asking the parents around me if they have it on. I found my skin cancer the first year my daughter played Travel Softball, and that following May, which is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, I started reaching out to Sunscreen companies to see if they would help provide every girl on our team with sunscreen. That first year I didn’t have much luck but I still made sure the girls had sunscreen and a lip balm with SPF in it. Now, I am so grateful to Brush On Block and the other companies that provide each girl with sunscreens to protect their skin. The team now celebrate Skin Cancer Awareness Month by wearing special jerseys promoting the importance of protecting your skin. I have had so many people tell me how my story has changed their perspective on skin cancer and they wear sunscreen now because they heard my story.

If I could go back in time I would tell my 16-year-old self that the choices she was making wouldn’t affect her for 20 years, but when they did, it would be life changing. I would tell her about being the youngest person in the surgeon’s waiting room, about how cold the rooms are, and the shock at seeing the destruction that the cancer caused. I would tell her about the pain, about being completely awake and aware as the surgeon pulls the tumor from her lip, about the new-found fear of being in the sun. But really, if I could go back in time, I’d only tell her this—stay out of tanning beds, wear sunscreen always and remember to reapply it often.

When you are in the thick of skin cancer it’s really hard to see how it could possibly made into something positive. But I can gladly say I did. I am very passionate about preventing others from going through what I went through with skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer and it is also the most preventable. We just have to talk about it a little more and get the word out that wearing sunscreen could save your life."