I cannot possibly do justice to just how unpleasant and stressful Mohs surgery is in just a few words, but here goes nothing…
Aside: Because the cancer was located on the petri dish known as my nose, I needed to start an oral antibiotic beforehand (Yes, you can add wound infection to your list of things to worry about)
Surgery Day. Imagine a medium-sized waiting room, chairs arranged around three of the walls. Along the fourth wall there’s a door and a table with coffee, tea, orange juice, and some snacks.
One by one, each of a dozen skin cancer patients enters. We greet each other and exchange some small talk about the January weather or something. Nobody dares to bring up the topic du jour–skin cancer and Mohs surgery.
Then it begins. A smiling medical assistant (MA) pops her head in, calls a name, and off that person goes to start their Mohs surgery process. This repeats every ten minutes or so until every name has been called. You never know which name will be called in advance, which adds some more anxiety that you did not plan for.
It took about an hour and a half for my name to be called for the first time: “Mister Peter?” Short walk to a typical-looking medical exam room. Five or six needle sticks to the nose. Only the first two hurt. Then your nose just feels like this lifeless blob in the middle of your face. No time wasted. Patch of skin excised. No sense of how deep or wide. Wound lightly dressed. Biopsy sent to the lab. Me back to the waiting room. (By the way, I really appreciated the professional, calming bedside manner of my surgeon)
After everyone has had their turn and returned to the waiting room, everybody’s got a bandage somewhere—typically in an awkward, prominent, and sensitive place on their head or face. Now there’s no secret about where everyone has skin cancer, although what kind still remains confidential.
The process continues. A name gets called and off they go. Each precious soul, like me, hoping it’s their last time.
Each cycle takes somewhere between one and half and two hours. That’s a lot of time to think about what’s happening–a lot of time to notice things like who does not return to the waiting area, to notice that the sequence of names called has changed from the previous cycle, and to wonder what all that means. And so again, you have that extra tinge of anxiety because you still don’t know when your name might be called.
I also notice that I’m the youngest person there. All the other patients seem to be at least a generation if not two generations older than me. And then I wonder if this is what my future looks like for decades to come. Is this my first trip on my way to becoming a “frequent flier”?
Another anxiety-filled two hours passes: “Mister Peter?”. Two hours must be a good thing, right? More needle sticks. More skin removed. You still don’t know how much.
As each cycle came and went, a patient here and there picks up their belongings and heads home, apparently cured. Naturally we all congratulate them and wish them well. There is no hint of jealousy. We are genuinely happy for them and take their success as a sign of hope for the rest of us.
The cycles continue. Catered lunch arrives somewhere along the way. Name gets called. Heart pounds a little faster each time–hoping to be told your cancer is gone, but bracing to be told they (and you) still have work to do.
Long painful story short, my name was called six times that day. By the end, it had already been about ten hours and it was down to just me and one other patient. Mercifully, the sixth time I entered the exam room, the MA whispers “Your cancer is gone, Mister Peter.”
Relief for sure, but not party time.
Having survived one of the longest and hardest days of my life, I’m still not done, because now I have an open wound on my nose that needs fixed the very next day.
Stay. Out. Of. The. Sun.