‘I was never supposed to get skin cancer’

By Cleo Glyde

‘I was never supposed to get skin cancer’
Getting diagnosed with skin cancer was an enormous shock to Cleo Glyde, as she thought she took good care of her skin. But recovering from the surgery and accepting her new scar was a challenge all its own.

I was never supposed to get skin cancer: I am always two steps ahead. I’m the nutter who wears opera gloves in the car, carries a sun parasol in clement weather, and wears wide-brimmed hats to the shops. Yes, I am sure that my more down-to-earth brethren in the Post Office are thinking, ‘It’s not Royal Ascot love’, but by now, shrinking from the harsh, midday sun is so instinctive, it’s as if I live in a gothic parallel reality directed by Tim Burton, looking on at those who pop down their sunroof, stretch out on towels, and tilt their face skywards to soak up the midday sun.

As a fair-skinned migrant with a mother straight-outta-Dublin, I am genetically unsuited to living Down Under. Irish people are built for clouds and castles, not surfing and sun- scorched barbecues. My sun dodging is born of necessity, yet also mired in aesthetics and vanity.

During my years as a beauty editor, every brand expert and dermatologist I interviewed circled back to UVA and UVB radiation exposure as the culprit for — gulp – premature ageing and skin cancer.

We now have realms of scientific evidence that document how the sun’s UVA rays cause the collagen and elastin fibres, the structural ‘scaffolding’ that gives young skin its plump, juicy appearance, to collapse – and how the higher energy levels of the even scarier UVB rays damage skin’s DNA shape. I hike and swim before the UVB prime-time of 10am or after 4pm. When I must be in harsh light, on goes the SPF 50+ sunblock and bohemian floaty Virginia Woolf layers, very 1920s Bloomsbury garden party. I have always had this covered.

Until I didn’t. Earlier this year I met a lovely doctor socially, who peered closely at a pinkish mark on my nose and said, “What’s that?” “Oh, just a blemish that won’t go away,” I replied. The balms I used couldn’t budge this annoyingly stubborn, pinkish toughened patch on the side of my nose. “Oh noooo, I’m pretty sure that’s skin cancer,” she corrected. “In fact, I’m so sure that I want to send you straight to a biopsy.”

Childhood legacy

Say what? In one split second skin cancer’s almighty reach became a real threat rather than an omnipresent cautionary tale. The biopsy confirmed that I indeed had Basal Cell Carcinoma or BCC, the most frequently occurring cancer, which usually appears on the head, neck or upper body due to sun exposure. If neglected too long, it can spread to the muscle and bone underneath.

I was ashamed to admit that, until this moment, my focus had been on skin appearance. Hitting the brakes on ageing took up so much bandwidth that skin cancer prevention seemed more like an amazing bonus. ‘Why me?’ I thought. ‘Haven’t I been a good girl?’

“Actually, this has been in the cards for you for a while,” clarified the dermatologist-surgeon I consulted to remove my pea-sized BCC. “This is from 20 or even 30 years ago.” It seems that my happy childhood as a tanned, freckled kid in an Abba t-shirt, running around the beach, was enough exposure — no matter how I lived later.

Statistically, it’s more a question of, why not me? A hot climate, European migration, and coastal lifestyle are the perfect storm that has made New Zealand and Australia skin cancer capitals — for both the less common and more dangerous melanoma, which starts as a mole, and the non- melanoma type that I have.

My doctor urged me to have a full body check every year. “It’s mandatory to find new cancer early: the less it has a chance to spread, the less skin around it we have to remove.” He cited another common mistake people make: associating SPF50+ only with beach outings. “You need SPF50+ protection all the time — in the car, going food shopping, in the garden.”

The procedure requires two surgeons with differing skill sets. Firstly, a surgeon who assesses whether the entire Basal Cell Carcinoma has been removed at a microscopic level, mapping tissue samples right after surgery until there is no more cancer (it may take several attempts). This precision boosts cure rates and preserves the maximum amount of healthy tissue. Then, the plastic surgeon takes over to reconstruct the facial ‘defect’ left behind.

Ah yes, the cut. My plastic surgeon gently warned me that the surgical excision would be bigger than the BCC itself. When she saw the dawning horror on my face she explained flap reconstruction. “I drape skin across from a local area to make the result smooth. I’ll hide the scar in your smile line. You are lucky that your BCC is on the side of your nose, in the shadow.” Flap reconstruction is a safer bet than skin grafts, which are needed for larger cancer growths. The skin colour, quality, native blood supply and contour already matches the defect site. I nodded, but at the time all I was really hearing was ‘Cut. Knife. Face.’

My trauma response to the physically overwhelming and scary is always the same: don’t process it. On the outside, my empowering narrative was gratitude for an alpha medical team that would free me from cancer. Hashtag blessed. My internal silent scream was just too unbearable to acknowledge. The squeak of the trolley and blinding surgical lights wrenched me from the abstract notion of ‘getting cancer removed’ to searingly physical truth: I am about to have my face sliced open.

The team did a brilliant job, removed the cancer and got me safely through. There must have been some serious rummaging around, because I had a black eye, puffiness, bruising and layers of strips and bandages protecting the vulnerable newly stitched wound.

Shock of the new

When I removed the bandages and saw the two cuts, forming a long geometric shape from the bridge of my nose to my mouth, my heart sank and I felt very low. Ever the Irish drama queen, I cancelled the dating apps on my phone – I was no longer the woman in those photos.

Most people were polite and said (rightly), “It will fade!” I guiltily kept my meltdown to myself. Shouldn’t being cancer-free be enough? “Having patients cry is an everyday occurrence,” said my clinic nurse when she removed my stitches. “A big facial scar causes distress. By Week Two the initial shock has usually settled and there is a dramatic improvement. The quickest amount of healing happens in the first six weeks.” The crisscross railway track look of stitches was transformed into two red, raw-looking clean lines.

Goodbye cancer, hello scar management. It takes 21 days for skin to superficially renew, then up to two years for ‘epidermal remodelling’ to cause skin to close around the wound edges. The clinic recommended a round of Low-Level Light Therapy (LLLT) with HEALITE II. The infrared light boosts healing and lessens scar formation by photomodulating cellular function. I would also have to be as vigilant as ever about the sun.

“New scars are like baby skin,” advised my nurse. “Keep it out of sunlight for the first few months or it can pigment brown instead of turning silver.” So for now, the scar is part of my story. In a few months the internal stitches that cause strange bumps will dissolve. It takes a year for a face scar to be invisible or “at a point where people are happy”, said my surgeon.

Rather than live a half-life wilted by shame till then, I have made a conscious decision to cheat and just be happy now. I’ll boost the body’s seemingly miraculous power to heal as best I can as my disfigurement fades. Perfection is a young girl’s game, and I’m a woman – a pirate queen with a backstory who has the scar to prove it.



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