a bag of peas looks nonplussed and sweats while trying to explain mohs surgery

When A Relative Is Diagnosed With Skin Cancer: Providing Comfort

Last week, my spin instructor asked me if I could please wait after class so she could talk to me. As I stood there, dripping with sweat and needing to go home to get ready for work, she came running over. “Renee, I know you had skin cancer, and my mom was just diagnosed with one on her leg. What do I tell her? What should she do?” she asked. She was visibly upset, and told me she was worried about her mom. I asked her if she had contacted a surgeon, and asked her what type of skin cancer her mom had. She told me yes, her mom had already made an appointment with a Mohs surgeon, and she had a squamous cell carcinoma on her shin.

I wasn't sure

I really wasn’t sure what advice to give her. She wanted to know that her mom would be okay, and she wanted to know how she could help her, based on what I knew from having had two Mohs surgeries. All I could think of was to tell her to buy frozen peas and to follow the post-op instructions.

“Peas?”  she asked. I told her that frozen peas would hurt less than a block of ice when placed on the surgical site. I also told her a little bit more about the surgery, but she already knew that they remove one section at a time, test it in the lab, and determine if there are clean margins and keep going back until they get it all. I remembered how nervous I was, thinking about how many times they’d have to go back and take off a section of my skin from my face. And I knew my friend was wondering the same about her mom. But mostly, she wanted to know that her mom would be okay, that they would remove all the cancerous tissue and that the cancer wouldn’t spread.

Coming up with some tips

Here’s what I told my friend about her mom’s upcoming Mohs surgery for her squamous cell skin cancer:

  • Bring something to do in the waiting room, to pass the time - it can take hours as the surgeon removes each sample and brings it to the lab to test for clean margins. Bring food, for the same reason.
  • Consider going with her or have someone else go with her to pass the time while waiting and more importantly, so she won’t feel as scared waiting for the results each time after they remove a section.
  • The first time I had Mohs surgery, I went by myself and as it turns out, the surgeon only had to remove one section, so there wasn’t too much waiting, just about 45 minutes to one hour in the waiting room. The second time, my daughter went with me, and I was thankful for her company, especially because the doctor had to remove two sections, with one hour of waiting after each. Add to that the time I spent sitting in the exam room as he removed each section, and we were there for hours!
  • Buy groceries and do any chores that require heavy lifting a day or two before surgery since she may not be able to lift anything heavy for a week or so afterward.
  • Ask the nurse or assistant for extra bandages to have on hand. You'll  have to clean and change the dressing every day.
  • Rest when you get home from surgery. I don’t nap, but when I came home from my second, more intense Mohs surgery, I fell asleep sitting in a chair soon after I ate a late lunch. I think it was the combination of not sleeping well the night before and being emotionally drained after the experience in the surgeon’s office. I was finally able to relax, and I think my body just needed some rest.
  • Be kind to yourself the next day. Don’t push yourself to do too much. And that’s not easy for me to do. I was able to take it easy by telling myself how horrible it would be if I started bleeding, if the stitches opened or fell out.
  • Think positively. It’s scary sitting there, not seeing what they are removing, waiting for results, being stitched. Remember that it’s important to take care of the skin cancer before it gets worse and they need to remove even more tissue, leaving a potentially bigger scar. Be grateful for this type of surgery, in that it enables the surgeon to remove less tissue while still getting all the cancer.

Providing comfort

Finally, I was able to think beyond the peas.

What advice would you give a friend who is either having Mohs surgery or has a relative who will be having the procedure done to remove a skin cancer?

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