What You Think When They Say “Cancer”

I went in for my annual skin check mid-last month – the thing I made myself do as a silly 101 list item what seems like forever ago and have gone ever since – and mentioned the little bump on my shoulder that’s been irritating but not troublesome.

Well it was troublesome. Enough so that the doctor removed it. Then called me 7 days later and said “It’s skin cancer.”



I don’t know what you’re supposed to think when you’re told something is cancer – and in the interest of full disclosure, I’m typing this after I’ve had surgery and a glass of wine. So read with caution. Or at least with wine-rose tinted glasses.

I’m fairly stoic when it comes to not-great news. It’s a wonderful thing when you’re presented with truly awful circumstances.

Soldier on.

Do what needs to be done and consider the ramifications later.

It’s how I navigated a very scary (in retrospect) live-ammo gun battle near my home while living overseas (then driving like a madwoman to the hospital with an gunshot-injured friend bleeding in my backseat). It’s also how I traveled an hour back home from downtown via train after receiving a nearly incoherent text from my husband after he fell and shattered his dominent thumb.

Do what needs to be done. Think about it later.



Well it’s later.

When I heard, “It’s skin cancer,” my response was, “Ok, now what?”

The what was outpatient surgery. Relatively minor. Yes, I could go back to work. Yes, it would be uncomfortable but no, I wouldn’t need prescription meds.

Good news – because, you know, I have things to do. A busy job. Responsibilities. Meetings and deadlines on the calendar on my surgical date.

Only after I had all of the details did I call Kelly to say “Hey, the doctor called. I have basal cell skin cancer. It’s minor. I can go back to work after the surgery to remove it.”

Bless my husband. He just paused and said, “I’m so sorry.”



We’ve had a bit of drama within my team over the past few weeks – a lot of life happening. Family members in hospice, others in the hospital, illnesses and so on. So I didn’t tell my team that I had skin cancer or that I was scheduled for surgery. I did tell my counterpart and my day-to-day team manager. I explained why I wasn’t telling anyone and assured them it was no big deal. I’d be back at work after the procedure – and after my scheduled meetings, of course.

You can judge whether I was right or wrong to withhold information. Sometimes I assume that it’s better not to know everything. Why worry about what you can’t control? Each day has enough worry and besides, I made sure to tell my personal prayer warriors so I knew that Kelly and I weren’t alone.



So today was my surgery and I was super-surprised to discover how tense I was. Nervous, perhaps. Before the procedure, my doctor asked what was on my mind. All I could say was, “I’m afraid I’ll hurt later.”

Kelly reminded me when I had a spot removed on my foot that the doctor thought was cancer (in 2003, I think), it was an incredibly painful experience. Your foot doesn’t have much tissue, so you feel everything. It was dreadful. And unforgettable.



My procedure today went by very quickly and before I knew it, they’d sutured me (two sets of stitches – they cut out the cancer down to the fat level under the skin) and I was taped up and ready to go.

Then came the instructions.

No weight bearing or stress on my shoulder for 2-4 weeks – ideally 4 weeks, they stressed.

No lifting my purse.

No pulling the door open with my left hand.

No carting laundry.

No carrying grocery bags.

No picking up and kissing on kitties. (The latter is the most difficult, but gosh – I weighed Oliver this morning and he’s now 14 pounds! so it makes sense.)



As I sat there listening – also making note that now my new normal is skin checks every 6 months instead of annually and finding a date to come in for stitch removal and wondering how on Earth I’m supposed to remember to carry my purse in my right hand instead of my left shoulder – I realized that my hands were shaking.

Then the nurse motioned at my lower eye. I pulled out my phone and looked at myself in the reverse mirror. My eye makeup was smudged. I’d evidently cried a little during the procedure.

I went home and fixed my makeup, then headed to my lunch meeting.

My hands shook for the next 3 hours.

And the pain started an hour after that.



During one-on-one meetings with a few of my team members this afternoon, I decided to tell them why I wasn’t acting like myself. It was pretty noticeable. They all told me to go home. So I did. In fact, I had Kelly drive me home and he’s been carrying and fetching, kitty-wrangling and Advil-supplying ever since.



What you think and what you do when they say “cancer” really depends on the person, I’m discovering.

I feel confident that my doctor has successfully removed all of the affected cells and that in 2-4 days I’ll be chafing at the requirement to wait 2-4 weeks to resume my normal life.

I’m grateful for my not-so-silly 101 list item that got me into the habit of going to the dermatologist every year for an annual skin check because the one thing I know about not-great news (be it cancer or anything else) is that the earlier you know, the better off you’ll be.

I’m really grateful that the spot isn’t on my face.

I’m also grateful for a host of other things that I haven’t even begun to contemplate. But mostly, at the moment, I’m grateful for Advil. And the weekend.

And friends, family and colleagues who understand what you’re going through, are supportive and help you think clearly about what you might be feeling when all you can think about is Dealing With It.

4 Comment

  1. Cathy says: Reply

    ((hug)) but a soft one that doesn’t involve your shoulder <3

  2. Julia Meade says: Reply

    Gentle fist bump, with your right hand.

    Looking forward to good news.

  3. Raj says: Reply

    Thank you for writing about this. Whether or not it helps you to write, it’s useful to others. So thank you. And best wishes so you get back to your ‘prior’ self soon!

  4. Mom says: Reply

    So sorry to hear this but so glad it’s not melanoma! Be well!

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