Wellness: The Phone Call You’re Dreading

November 21 2012, 12:18 PM

Yesterday I tapped the voicemail button on my phone. Then I stared at the little silver dot that moves from left to right in a blue line on your screen, ticking away the seconds as your message plays. I let it run all the way through till it stopped without putting the phone to my ear. I tried to ignore a stab of panic that surged through me before I hit play another time and raised the phone off my desk.

I’d called my dermatologist early that morning to get the results of a biopsy she’d performed on a minor red spot on my face two weeks ago. I’d told the receptionist that a medical assistant could leave a message when she called back. I knew there was a good possibility that it was basal cell carcinoma (BCC). That is, after all, why the doc had taken the sample; it’s the most common diagnosis. And she’d told me all about Mohs surgery, a very precise and common procedure that has the highest cure rate of all treatments—one that usually results in less scarring than other kinds of surgery. In my case, because of the location, she told me, it would be nearly impossible to even see a scar if Mohs was necessary.

It still didn’t make it easier to hear the word over voicemail: cancer. Skin cancer. It was a simple, straightforward message, and she told me I could call back to schedule the procedure. I’d be in and out of the office in the same day, maybe in an hour or two. No big deal. I could wait till after the holidays, even until February if I wanted. The last thing she said in the message: “This isn’t urgent.”

I called back, and she reassured me that it’s not the kind of cancer that spreads to your lymph nodes. Up to 30 percent of people develop this in their lifetime, she said, and I might not even need stitches after the surgery. It wasn’t melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer. If you have to have cancer, she later told me, this is the kind of cancer you want.

I still cried, just for a moment, after I hung up. Cancer. It’s just not a word you ever want to hear in the context of yourself or a loved one. Or anyone.

And then I immediately felt silly for the self-pity. Compared to others who’ve heard that word in their own diagnosis, this is nothing. Yes, the skin cancer statistics are alarming; and yes, BCC requires careful treatment and can be a cosmetic pain in the neck. But there’s a 95 percent cure rate. I’d be doing very different research, and probably crying for real, had a different kind of cancer been diagnosed. 

Quick tip for anyone diagnosed with BCC, though: Do not wildly Google the images and torture yourself by browsing online horror-story forums about Mohs surgery. Now that I’ve made that mistake, I’ll be calling back my dermatologist and Mohs surgeon for a consult before the needles fly. There’s a difference between educating yourself and terrifying yourself.

Second: It won’t do any good to beat yourself up again and again with the “woulda-shoulda-coulda” game. It’s still running like a neverending ticker-tape through my head, and it isn’t helping. Yes, you should’ve paid more attention to sunscreen on all those spring breaks in college. Yes, you should’ve reapplied last summer on the summit of that fourteener. Yes, you should’ve thought twice before showing off your tan after that week of skiing. Of course you should have done those things, especially if you’re fair-skinned (I am), freckled (yep), blue- or green-eyed (check again), and live a mile closer to the sun than most people in this country.  

Instead, look ahead, and improve upon that carelessness. Don’t laugh off the sunscreen when it’s not sunny. Don’t give yourself 10 more minutes before applying just to get your “base color.” Be smart, and be grateful it’s not something life-threatening. It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow—and that is certainly what I’m thankful for.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock