"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Saving Face: My Victory over Skin Cancer by Carolyn Shuck

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Summary: A woman chronicles her battle and victory over skin cancer in the 1970s.

I’m dealing with my own skin cancer and Carolyn Shuck’s story of diagnosis, treatment, recovery and struggles with facial skin cancer in the early 1970s, while not quite “inspirational,” was encouraging and helpful.

I was taken aback by the contrast in our styles to our skin cancer despite our similar personalities and life stories. Her skin cancer was diagnosed in the 1970s and she mentions using sunscreen once. Once! Only years after her skin cancer diagnosis, does she give up playing golf, because she doesn’t want to damage her skin even more. She was living in Minneapolis, where I live now. She also has three children, as do I.

It helps that Carolyn Shuck is enormously wealthy and can make monthly plan trips to Madison, WI from La Jolla, CA. Of course, she is seeing the world’s finest skin cancer doctor. If you had the money, wouldn’t you pay to see the best doctor?

Dr. Mohs cuts and removes only the cancerous cells, but his cutting has left her without both sides of her nose and with damage to her forehead and cheek.

At times it seems as if her husband is deliberately sabotaging her efforts:
“How I wanted him to hold me and tell me he loved me now and he’d always love me. That no matter what happened, I’d always be beautiful to him and that he couldn’t bear to be away from me either.
But few men have scripts in their hands for a scene like this. I’m sure he didn’t know what to say. He gently pushed me away, fixed me a drink, and brought me up on the new details of our California move.”
In addition, they move to La Jolla, California, go on trips to Singapore and walk along the beach. I don’t know if the extremely wealthy see no reason why their lives have to change when tragedy strikes, but she didn’t seem as active with preventative measures as I am now. Granted, I am struggling with skin cancer 30 years later. The world has changed a lot since then. However, the topical chemotherapy cream 5FU, which Carolyn tested back in the 1970s, is still in use today. (Yes, the cream does F-yoU.)

Carolyn naively thinks that she’ll just get a little extra work done on her plastic surgery but instead encounters an arrogant prick of a different doctor at the Mayo Clinic. He has no idea what he is doing, but his arrogance comes across as confidence and Carolyn so wants to believe that she can have a normal nose again and doesn't bother to ask the right questions. After six botched surgeries on her nose by the Mayo Clinic doctor, she gives up and gets a prosthetic nose. Her husband, DeWitt, thinks she should be happy, but Carolyn still struggles with the daily struggle of putting her fake nose (a third one, after she rejected the ill-fitting and racially mismatched noses another doctor created for her) on and off every day.

“After eleven failed attempts at a nose, why was I asking for more?” Carolyn perfectly expresses her challenges of trying to get healthy and trying to be a good wife and mother.

Carolyn Shuck encountered a lot of people who said incredibly stupid things to a woman with a severe facial disfigurement. “I was glad I’d taken Psychology 101 and knew intelligence isn’t distributed equally: for each very bright person there is one very stupid person.” While I don’t have any facial disfigurement, I did and do feel very self-conscious about my face after treatment.
"I’m an extrovert, always have been. I both enjoy and need closeness to other people; need to hear what’s happening in their lives and to tell them what’s happening in mine. And all the communication isn’t verbal – with my face I’ve laughed with my friends and cried with them, expressed sympathy for them and enlisted their sympathy in return
Would they be uncomfortable, now, in my presence? Not know what to say or where to look? With a glaring defect in the middle of my face, would I find their attention focused on that instead of on me? Would they pity me??
I couldn’t stand that."
This so perfectly captures the sentiment I feel that I may re-read this book, just so I don’t feel alone or when I feel like hiding my face from others.

The writing is simplistic, but well-told with a few scattered narrative leaps. Great story and helpful for anyone dealing with any stage of skin cancer.

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