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Skin Cancer Survival Story, Mixed with Hard-Won Humor

"I wish you were running for president."

Last thing I heard as I spoke these words to the plastic surgeon is the nurse behind me saying "Aw." The surgeon, sort of a wise grandfatherly type, had just come around to face me. "How about if I hold your hand while you fall asleep?"

Competent and caring. Thank you, good man. I took his hand, closed my eyes, then just like that I was out like a light.

Some of my writings are light and bright, others are hard-won tales of caution. I've wrapped this one as best I can in joy and hard-won laughter—and I dedicate it to the plastic surgeon whose kindness meant even more than his credentials, to his angel nurse Mary, and to you, my reader. Even with friends and family to pray and pull you through, you don't want to go through this. I pray you never have to. As you will see at the end of this saga, you can get the Ultimate Reminders® eBook of your choice, free, just for scheduling a skin exam. Finally, to those of you living with more serious conditions, forgive me. This is all I know.

It started with a tiny red patch on the top of my head—one I should have paid more attention to. But the dermatologist who examined it roughly two years ago assured me it was nothing. Why wouldn't I take her word for it? She was funny and smart, and I liked her. And who knows? Maybe two years ago it was nothing.

We're going to let that be water under the bridge.

Since the red patch didn't hurt or cause trouble, I let it slide. Even this spring, after a second dermatologist took one look and joked that he had almost made it through his day without anyone having skin cancer, I felt more amused than concerned. Really, dude? You haven't even done the biopsy.

Turns out he was right. It was basal cell skin cancer, which I already knew was not life-threatening. Having it at this age was not the shockfest it was when I'd discovered basal cell on my cheek in my late twenties/early thirties. I just needed to deal with it. Or did I? I asked the dermatologist in an email:

"What happens if I do nothing?"

"Without treatment it would grow, doubling about every 1-2 years on average, though some grow quicker or slower. The resulting surgery would get larger. I'd recommend we proceed as we discussed, with the Mohs procedure, which has the smallest removal and the best cure rate."

No argument there. But it's not as though the area was the size of a golf ball—more like my fingertip. With time more or less on my side, I decided to seek out one more opinion. Much to his credit, the good doctor supported my effort, not grudgingly but graciously.

Be friendly, be respectful, but trust your gut. It knows more than you do.

Whole Bunch of Rigmarole Later

I'm in the office of another Mohs surgeon closer to home—he tells me how he'll treat the thing but first I need to schedule a consult with his recommended plastic surgeon. Two grandfatherly types whom I felt totally comfortable with. One would cut, the other would stitch. I had not thought to bring in a plastic surgeon, but hey. When in California.

Fast forward to June 30th. It's 11:30ish on a gorgeous day, and I've just finished with the Mohs surgeon. It's good. Worst thing you can say is no sooner had I checked in that morning and taken a seat, the waiting room started playing (I kid you not) "Seasons in the Sun." Not even a soft, subtle Muzak version, but the full-on hit by Terry Jacks. Is that not tragically hilarious?? Heck yeah, we had seasons in the sun—that's how we all ended up in this waiting room.

(I looked around for someone to make eye contact with, to share the irony of this moment. But everyone around me just kept reading or talking or texting. Terry Jacks kept singing for what felt like fifteen hours.)

For all my childhood joy and fun, I really didn't have seasons in the sun. In fact, I remember getting teased in my early twenties for coming back from Florida, whiter than when I had left. Amen! No such thing as a healthy tan. Apparently Mister Sun didn't care about my diligence—and he certainly wasn't going to cut me any breaks for being half Italian and spending most of my life enduring snowy Midwestern winters. Oh whatever. Let's eat.

Caution: Approaching Hospital Cafeteria

Is it me, or is hospital cafeteria food flagrantly non-nutritious? I order the one healthy meal option I can find—spicy pork and vegetables (spicy pork!), brown rice, and an orange—and dine with great delight. The skin cancer is gone, and in its place, a cute little bandage held on by a makeshift headband. At two o'clock, I'll get the stitches and call it a day. Not a bad way to wrap up the first half of the year. Meanwhile, I find a place outside to get my walking in—obviously in the shade, with my head covered, and wearing a visor just for good measure.

What did any of us do before smartphones, by the way? Eventually I go back inside, find a quiet place to sit, and trade texts with various friends about the day's adventures. I've already told my friend Jeff, whom I've known since preschool, about the Terry Jacks incident. We were in fourth grade when that song came out. But now after all the excisions and emails, I'm starting to feel just slightly overwhelmed. (Maybe it was the orange.) So I silence the phone, check in for my appointment, and take a seat.

Finally, two o'clock comes. A nurse named Mary takes me back to the procedure room. We hit it off instantly. We're still yukking it up like college roommates when the surgeon knocks and walks in, smiles and says hello, and shakes my hand. I smile back. It's good to see him again.

"Twenty-five by twenty-five millimeters. Wow."

Okay, I don't care how blissfully unaware you were five minutes ago of what twenty-five millimeters looks like, these are not the first words you want to hear from the plastic surgeon who's there to stitch your head.

But praise be to God he was there. Whatever needed to be done, he could more than handle it. After examining the wound and poking around a bit, he explained that my scalp was not very "mo-bile" (rhymes with snow pile). I was too ashamed to tell him I have always had a tight scalp. Should have massaged it more.

Once during a haircut when I was a kid, two hairdresser ladies stood over me, commiserating with each other at length about my unusually (allegedly) tight scalp. Save that for the breakroom! But I didn't say that, because I was only eleven.

Now here in the surgeon's office, suddenly the tight-scalp assertion was true and suddenly it mattered. Because of its size and location (and my sorry scalp), the closure was considered "complicated."

I'll say. As I understood it, he was going to have to cut two large c-shaped flaps so he could rotate them inward and have them meet in the middle. Don't quote me on that.

After talking it through, Dr. Rudolph and I agreed to do the surgery the next day, under local and general anesthetic. Bring it.

Not that I was feeling brave or even blithe. But the whole thing came up so quickly, the only part I truly had time to dread was the eight hours of required fasting. Is it not enough that last week I sailed through my first colonoscopy? I asked a priest I know if I could count the next day's fast toward the one required on Good Friday. He thought I was joking.

I was still daydreaming about cheese pizza when Dr. Rudolph dropped by the next day (wearing scrubs—not sure what else I was expecting), as I hung out in the little curtained area just prior to surgery. His was the last face I saw before the anesthesiologist put me into a mercifully deep sleep.

And when I awoke, I saw the deeply comforting presence of my sister-in-law Kim, who was seated a few feet away, looking back at me with warmth and concern. Still dazed from the anesthetic and surprised it was all over, I asked the nurse (not Mary, but a different one), "How many stitches did I have?" She sort of shrugged and laughed like, "How should I know?" Totally the wrong question.

What mattered is that everything had gone according to plan—I had the bulky, wraparound white bandage to prove it. I called it my babushka. On Day Two, my brother Jim smiled and told me, "You look like a nun." I smiled and agreed. Sister Gina.

Four days later, I was back in the surgeon's office for a scheduled follow-up. After a few pleasantries, Mary gave a snip-snip beneath my chin and removed every endless layer of bandage as gently as possible. Freedom. The rush of cool air on my newly exposed head felt awesome (a word I use maybe twice a year). But when I looked in the mirror, I must have winced.

"Be encouraged," Mary added quickly. "This is going to heal beautifully."

One Learns to Trust Whatever Mary Says

The day before surgery when she was going over all the instructions, she asked if I had someone I could stay with afterward. "My brother and sister-in-law," I said. "But I can't imagine that will be necessary." Mary thought it would be. I thought it wouldn't. We went round and round and practically arm-wrestled. I told her I would think about it.

I stayed with Jim and Kim for two nights. (None of us questioned it—least of all, me.) Two nights of total care and comfort and a lifetime of gratitude. Kim had even shown up that first night at my bedroom door with a sliver of cheese pizza.

Everything will heal beautifully. But right now I've got more stitches than I care to count, plus a long flowing conga line of staples. The other day after stepping out of the shower, I accidentally brushed against one and the pain nearly shot me through the stratosphere. God, this is hard! That's not what I said, but it's what I meant.

"Jesus, use this!"

I'm convinced more than ever that He does, that He brings not just good from misery but unimaginable good from every misery. Still. For all my confession of faith—sometimes exposing it but never imposing it—I'm just not ready to hear this whole episode was a "blessing in disguise." Please. In the words of Jerome K. Jerome, "What I am looking for is a blessing not in disguise." Aren't we all?

What I'm looking for is a drum-tight noggin. Got one! It feels like I'm wearing a helmet. "This too shall pass," yes? Four words I would never speak into another person's pain, I now say to myself with increasing regularity. It helps.

Tonight as I wrap up this reflection, I'm trading texts with my oldest brother, who lives in Michigan. He's making me laugh. So I fire back with the message on the right. We're both up past our bedtimes. Nothing unusual about that. But as we wind down our exchange, I notice our good-nights have an unusual tenderness.

And just like that, I'm pierced with wonder—not a syrupy, sappy, happy-clappy wonder, but a quiet, almost sobering sense of gratitude. I have all of my family and most of my friends, all of my health and most of my hair. Sounds like a Lyle Lovett song. At some point I'll have all of my hair. Until then, I'll be just fine with this CVS headband. Life really is such a miracle. Hell, CVS is a miracle.

And no, that is not the Vicodin talking. I haven't had so much as a Tylenol today.

The pain is still there, but it's no longer like having a Christmas tree mashed into my head. I can breathe deeply and exercise gently. I can sing in the shower, I can take a shower. I can stay up late and devour pizza. Ordinary joys that were out of reach just days ago, today I savored one by one, like so many minor miracles. #

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Gina DeLapa is America's Ultimate Reminders® Coach, a sought-after speaker, and the proud creator of the Ultimate Reminders® book series. Her wise and witty reminders ("Beware the organization whose response to a burning building is to form a committee") will make you laugh, stir your soul, and inspire your best. If you're not already getting her free Monday-Morning Pep Talk, be sure to sign up now at UltimateReminders.com/mondaymorningpeptalk.