No one wants to learn that they have cancer, but when I was 12 years old, that is exactly what my doctor told me. I was diagnosed with Basal Cell Carcinoma, a nonfatal chronic skin cancer. Although it is one of the most common types of skin cancers, it is exceedingly rare in children. For me, the cancer came in conjunction with Basal Cell Nevus Syndrome, which is a genetic condition characterized by jaw cysts. By the time I left high school, I had undergone three major jaw surgeries and five operations to remove cancerous tumors. At the time, I was so embarrassed about my scars that I told people at school that they were hockey injuries. I didn’t want people to know that I had “old-people” cancer—that seemed so lame. The average age of patients with my condition in the waiting room had to be over 80. And while cancer at any age is unfair, these patients had lived their lives spending too much time in the sun, and now they were paying the price for it. I did not understand why I had to as well.
Being told at 12 years old that you can’t spend any significant time in the sun was pretty much the worst thing the doctors could have told me. My parents were just glad that my life was not ending, but to me, my life was as good as over. I loved the outdoors and nature, and a life spent almost entirely indoors seemed like the exact definition of hell. However, with the help of my doctors, I would eventually discover that my life was far from finished. While I am supposed to avoid being outside when the UV index is high, with the help of a little SPF 50, I was able to do basically everything I had been doing before. I ran competitively and played soccer outside, and I still enjoy hiking and swimming in the Adirondacks. I learned to appreciate the nighttime, and I love bonfires and night walks. I just have to budget my time in the sun during the day like money—if I overspend, it will cost me.
As I grew up, I learned to not be ashamed of my syndrome. Unsurprisingly, no one wants to make fun of the girl with cancer, and being open about my situation has strengthened a lot of my connections with family and friends. Being the youngest patient at the office also had its benefits. The nurses loved having someone young to care for. When I first started going to doctor’s appointments, they would always compliment me for not complaining like their senior patients. Every time I go in for an appointment, I look forward to seeing my favourite nurse, Sue, and talking about hockey and travelling. The elderly patients are also always sweet to me. We are all there for the same reason, and it is unpleasant for everyone.
Another special thing about my syndrome is how much doctors and researchers are still learning. Because my condition is rare, with my permission, my doctor would take pictures of my skin to show his dermatology class. Although at first I felt a little like a guinea pig, I realize now that these photos could help advance the medical field. Before the pandemic, whenever I had an appointment, my doctor would always bring a medical student in to learn about my cancer. As someone interested in medicine myself, the idea that I could contribute to dermatological discoveries is exciting, to say the least.
I have always hated the idea of finding the good in everything because, with some things, there are just no good parts. And with many cancers, I stand by that statement. However, in my case, I find myself extremely lucky. Although surgeries and radiation are not fun, and avoiding the sun can be a hassle, I have a newfound appreciation for shade, for sunsets, and for seniors.