A Chance Meeting With a Magnifying Mirror Saved My Life

acceptance cancer life lessons Jul 05, 2022

This ritual should be non-negotiable for everyone

I remember the terrifying day the magnifying mirror became a necessary part of my life. I’d just come off the beach at our vacation hotel in Maui. The kids played joyfully at the water’s edge, while I had parked myself under an umbrella. This redhead had far too many sunburns to ever enjoy swimming in the ocean.

After showering, I reached for the mirror on the hotel vanity. It was exceptionally magnified (the label said 10X), making me dizzy. I started to apply moisturizer, and then something caught my eye.

A pink spot sat on the tip of my nose. It was about the circumference of a pea. I thought maybe I’d missed a spot with sunscreen. I quickly covered it with concealer and continued with makeup, getting ready for the hotel’s seafood buffet.

The next day, it captured my attention again. Darn, that mirror. I studied it. Was it a bug bite? A blister?

The following day, I hopped out of bed and went straight to the mirror. My heart sank. There was a slit in the center, as though I’d sliced it with a sharp knife. It was red, having bled during the night. It looked puffy and a little pinker.

It was all I could think about when we flew home a week later. I booked an appointment with a dermatologist, but she was two weeks out. I calmed myself, thinking I overreacted. It didn’t look so bad in my mirror.

Each day felt like an eternity, but by the time I marched into the doctor’s office, I felt pretty confident it was nothing. I was wrong.

My doctor suspected cancer
What? NO! Not on my face! I held back tears as she injected lidocaine. I could hear her snip a section right off the tip of my nose. While stitching, she explained that Basal cell is generally the mildest form when caught early. Squamous cell is much more aggressive and can spread to other parts of the body if it’s not spotted early. Melanoma is considered the most serious of all. (Here’s the info from the American Academy of Dermatology)

It took almost two weeks before I got the lab results. Yep, it was cancer. But it was worse. It was squamous cell carcinoma and far more treacherous than I’d imagined. This kind of skin cancer can spread to your organs and other parts of the body. The doctor suspected it was deep and referred me to a plastic surgeon.

Now, I was terrified
I scheduled an appointment with the plastic surgeon… again waiting another two weeks. Every day I obsessed about it growing. I had fantasies about taking the corner of a razor blade, and cutting it out, myself.

At last, I sat across the desk from the doctor. “Hmm,” he said, punctuated with an extraordinarily long pause. “I’ll need to remove the tip of your nose. It’s really too bad. Your nose is one of your nicest features.”

It was a horrible thing to say. I like your nose but I’m going to cut it off!

My husband’s hand tightened, and my stomach turned. We left the office in shock, not even stopping at the desk to schedule surgery.

Then came the light bulb moment
On the drive home, everything became clear. I knew exactly what to do.

Six years earlier, my daughter was born with a severe bilateral cleft lip and gum that also affected the structure of her nose.

It was the shock of my life, yet, it changed my life. I was in no way prepared for anything to go wrong with her birth… or was I?

My husband was writing and producing Beauty and the Beast for CBS in the year of my pregnancy. We often worked on storylines and characters together. We discussed in great depth about the public perception of facial differences.

The beast, Vincent, played by Ron Perlman, had the face of a lion, a strong brow, and a cleft in the center of his mouth. He lived below the city streets in tunnels under New York City, hiding from people to avoid the stares and shock of people during the day.

One dark night, Vincent had wandered into Central Park and found Catherine (played by Linda Hamilton) beaten and left to die. He swooped her into his arms and took her to his cavern where he nursed her back to health. She fell in love with him… and it didn’t matter how different he was. He’d saved her life.

All those nights David and I discussed Vincent and the plight of people with differences had prepared me from the moment she was born. I knew exactly what I needed to do.

I had to lead the way for my daughter. I had to teach her the words and the power to be strong, confident, and bold. Yes, the kids were going to stare at her and likely tease her, but if I empowered her with words and her own story of strength, she would have the tools she’d need from the very beginning.

I’d always taken a back seat to my husband’s writing, but now I had the reason I needed to get started with my own work. I wrote Julianne a fairy tale, Rosey, the Imperfect Angel. I didn’t expect it to get published, but it did, through a small educational publishing house in Los Angeles. From there, I couldn’t have imagined how wildly successful it would be, as it became a book that schools, libraries, and hospitals used to help children embrace the concept of the beauty of imperfection.

Julianne’s surgeon, Dr. Janet Salomonson, said it would take several surgeries over many years to repair her cleft, but I will never forget what she said… “I want your daughter to have a face she loves.”

And… she really does love her face! My daughter recently spoke at a Cleft Conference in Los Angeles, sharing how grateful she was for her surgeon’s care and skills… but also talked about how important it is for parents to nurture and empower their children in the early years. I choked back tears, realizing I’d done my job as a parent, and she was now giving that knowledge to others.

So the universe, God, life… whatever it is…. had prepared me. I’d already had the awareness, the discussions, and a greater understanding of facial defects. Sure, Beauty and the Beast was a fantasy, but aren’t all fantasies based on real-life emotions, situations, and challenges?

My daughter’s courage in facing her youth gave me such inner strength as I faced my own struggle with the potential destruction of my face.

Back to my light bulb moment
When we left the plastic surgeon’s office, I blurted out… “we need to call Dr. Salomonson.”

She returned my call immediately and said to come right over as soon as possible. My husband drove wildly through the windy roads of Malibu Canyon. I made myself sick, staring at my nose in the car mirror every 30 seconds.

Dr. Salomonson was waiting for us. She whisked us into the examination room and studied the cancer. She moved it with the tip of her finger.

“I will do a Mohs Procedure and remove a little at a time to see how deep it goes.”

She cleared her appointments and booked me for the next day. Her urgency brought me comfort.

How would I look after surgery? Would the end of my nose still be there?

That morning, it took forever to get prepped and wheeled into surgery, but there was no sense of time once my eyes closed.

It seemed like just minutes, but it had actually been several hours. The Mohs procedure involves analyzing each scrape of skin. The doctor removes it, sends it to the lab, then removes it again and again until the lab reports a clear margin.

I remember opening my eyes and seeing my husband standing over me. He didn’t look upset; that was a good sign. I could feel a large bandage covering my nose.

Janet stood over me. She said the cancer was deep enough to require a skin transplant from behind my ear, but she saved the shape of my nose. “You’ll be fine,” she said. I grabbed her hand and didn’t let go as tears streamed from my eyes.

Weeks later, I was able to cover the transplant somewhat with a bit of makeup, and today, if you look closely, you can see it ever so slightly. My nose isn’t perfect, and sometimes the transplant area will turn pink when I’m hot, but I’m okay with that. The experience with my daughter taught me long before, to be comfortable with the beauty of imperfection.

After the surgery, I bought a 10x mirror to keep an eye on anything that might pop up. I’ve had five more skin cancers, all in the area around and on my nose. Thanks to the mirror, I caught them as tiny specs before they became something more. They were not the treacherous Squamous cell, but Basal cell, and the tiny scars are hardly noticeable.

How did I become so vulnerable to skin cancer?
Genetics, for one thing. I’m a redhead with the whitest skin on the planet. My husband says I glow in the dark!

The doctors feel the damage began long ago when I was about 10. My father was in Navy flight school in Pensacola, Florida. We lived on the beach, on an island off the coast. Our back door was just a few yards from the lapping of waves!

That year I spent every day in the water swimming with my sister, Sue. It was such a glorious adventure, leaping in the water, swimming with the occasional dolphin (yes!) or two. I was never afraid, only in awe. I’d collect the seashore treasures, shells of every kind, and I loved rescuing starfish, throwing them back in the waves where they came from.

By night, I was in horrible pain. I’d sit in a bath of vinegar water, trying to soothe the sunburns on my body. I could hardly sleep because even the touch of sheets hurt my blistered skin.

But it didn’t stop me. I’d be back out the next day. There was no sunscreen then, nor was there awareness about the sun causing cancer. I couldn’t help my daily frolic in the waves. I’m a Pisces, and we love water!

We know better now, and I’ve taught my kids to be wary of the sun and check consistently for suspicious spots.

Acceptance of my reflection
That 10x mirror saved my life but recently has tussled with my self-esteem.

As the years go by, I notice every lifeline, frown line, smile line… and as proud as I am for the life I’ve lived, those lines in 10X magnification don’t always make me feel good. I decided on a compromise.

I give my skin a good study in the magnifying mirror, first thing in the morning, sans makeup. I thank my skin for looking vibrant, fresh, and cancer-free. Then, I put that mirror aside and use my regular vanity mirror for makeup. It works!

I urge you to study your skin every morning. Get that 10x mirror and make a habit of it. Then, look at the rest of your body for suspicious spots. I got my first skin cancer in my early 40s, but I know it can happen earlier. Be aware, and visit a dermatologist regularly. In fact, my next appointment is tomorrow and I welcome it.

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