Heidi House, cancer survivor, has a message for everyone: skin cancer can be treated successfully – but the sooner the better!
Cancer is a scary word to hear from your doctor. That may be one of the reasons that it took Heidi House over eight years to go see a doctor about the dry itchy spot on her forehead.
At first she thought maybe it was eczema. It would come and go. It irritated her. She tried not to scratch it, but she would scratch around it. It would seem to heal and then it would come back and even bleed. But then it would appear to heal again.
“A part of me was actually scared to go to the doctor, to hear the word cancer, to be honest with you,” said Heidi. But her father came and saw her this summer and said it didn’t look good and he “very firmly” pushed her to go to a dermatologist and get it checked out.
It was Dr. Covington at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital who gave her the word. To be specific, it was basal-cell carcinoma. It is curable. Heidi said, “It is the mildest form of skin cancer, the most curable and has the highest survival rate.” It often appears as a painless raised area of skin, which may be shiny with small blood vessels running over it. It may also present as a raised area with ulceration.
Heidi was referred to Dr. Kristen Townley in Missoula who performed a Nosh surgery, a procedure in which the cancer is scraped away. Sometimes it can take multiple scrapings, but Heidi was lucky and it was all gone after the first scraping.
“I was out of the hospital in two hours and went back to work the next day,” she said. “I had headaches for about a week. But I do have a pretty good hole in my head.” She said the doctor had to dig fairly deep and fairly wide.
“I think the hole in my forehead is about 3 cm long,” she said. “It’s healing very nicely now.”
She had a couple of options for her surgery. She could let it heal naturally on its own and go back and have stitches done later. Or she could have a graft which would mean getting another cut over her ear to remove some skin. They would sew that over the hole in her head, she said, which could leave some scarring.
“I chose to let it heal naturally and close on its own and heal from the inside out. So, I should have very little scarring on my forehead,” she said.
Heidi said she went back to work at pre-school the day after surgery. “I had headaches for about a week and I also have to be careful because I have a hole in my head,” she said.
Heidi teaches 4- and 5-year-olds in pre-school.
“They have been very good with me, very gentle with me,” she said. “It will be about an eight-week healing process but it’s doing really well.” She said that she had a strong support system behind her, including her mother and her boyfriend.
“They really helped me get through this,” said Heidi
“This was my first bout with cancer,” she said simply. “I will have to go in every year now and get checked.”
She said if there is one thing she would like to convey about her experience it is, “Wear your sun screen! And get your spots checked! If I had caught this earlier I would not have such a big hole in my head.”
In the current Colors of Cancer educational and fundraising campaign, the color of skin cancer is black. Hamilton Gifts is the Hamilton Main Street business that’s been leading Team Black for the last three years. They ran together as a group for the Colors of Cancer 5K last year in honor of the owner’s Jeanie Bruton’s husband, John.
Dr. Angela Covington at Bitterroot Dermatology, Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital’s new clinic, said early skin cancers are most treatable and many skin cancers are found by patients or their family members.
“I recommend monthly skin checks at home to look for spots that are new, changing, or unusual,” said Dr. Covington.
Covington recommends following the instructions of the American Academy of Dermatology on how to perform a skin self-exam and making an appointment with a dermatologist to have any suspicious lesions evaluated.
How to perform a skin self-exam
• Examine your body in a full-length mirror
• Examine your body front and back in the mirror, then look at the right and left sides with your arms raised.
• Look at your underarms, forearms, and palms
• Bend elbows and look carefully at forearms, underarms, and palms.
• Look at your legs, between toes, and soles of your feet
• Look at the backs of your legs and feet, the spaces between your toes, and the soles of your feet.
• Use a hand mirror to examine your neck and scalp
• Examine the back of your neck and scalp with a hand mirror. Part hair for a closer look.
• Use a hand mirror to check your back and buttocks
• Finally, check your back and buttocks with a hand mirror.