Living with Skin Cancer
Receiving a skin cancer diagnosis is a life-changing experience. Fear, anxiety, depression, and other emotions can run rampant, regardless of your specific diagnosis and treatment options. For many, although diagnosis may be scary, there are treatment options and ways to manage and improve your condition. For others, treatment options may be few in number or require an aggressive approach. No matter where you fall on this scale, the experience can be life changing.
Researchers have investigated how quality of life can be impacted once a skin cancer diagnosis is received, as well as during or post-treatment. From being scared of the sun, to being overwhelmed with information, options, and emotions, it may feel like you are truly getting to know your body all over again.1 You will likely also begin to establish a support network of friends and family members or caregivers as part of your treatment plan.
Fear or anxiety about recurrence (cancer coming back after treatment) can also become overwhelming. This concern with recurrence may change how you treat your skin and how often you check for new or unusual markings, both on yourself, as well as on those around you. Receiving a life-changing diagnosis can also remind us of our mortality, and stir up unexpected and hard-to-manage feelings.
Fostering a new relationship with your skin
From taking intensifying measures to protect your skin, to coping with the emotional and physical aspects of post-treatment scarring, the way you view and treat your skin will most likely change with skin cancer. Some treatment options may result in scarring which, in turn, can affect self-confidence and body image. Learning to embrace or cover up scars is often a battle in itself and can be challenging emotionally.
After receiving a diagnosis of skin cancer it is common to want to protect your skin, as well as the skin of your loved ones, as much as possible. This can include increasing sun-safety measures, avoiding the outdoors and other sources of ultraviolet (UV) rays, finding other sources of vitamin D to nourish your skin besides the sun, and monitoring for recurrence. While there are many ways to practice increased awareness and protect your skin, there can be a fine line between practicing protective behaviors and becoming overwhelmed with anxiety and fear.
Monitoring your health
Having skin cancer puts you at higher risk for developing additional skin cancers or having the original cancer return, otherwise known as recurrence. While recurrence is a scary possibility, and attending follow-up appointments with your healthcare providers is crucial, it is important to find a healthy balance. You may wish to enlist the help of a partner during at-home skin checks to make sure hard-to-reach spots are thoroughly checked. Thinking about how frequently you perform self-checks is important, and your healthcare provider can probably suggest a self-check schedule that fits your lifestyle.
Some cancer treatments may negatively affect your body’s lymph nodes. Your lymph nodes are an important part of your immune and circulatory systems. When lymph nodes are damaged, it can result in lymphedema, or swelling of limbs. If you develop lymphedema it may complicate the ability to detect lesions through skin self-checks, and you may need more frequent visits to your healthcare provider. Being your own health advocate and taking an active role in your health, without letting the fear and anxiety of recurrence consume you, is a critical step in living with skin cancer.
Even people with the routine monitoring schedules and a healthy body image need support from time to time. Whether your cancer is treatable and manageable, or aggressive and debilitating, it is perfectly natural to want or need help from others. Enlisting a partner that may be able to assist you beyond just performing skin checks, and promoting them to a caregiver role can be a difficult but necessary step for some people.
Being a caregiver has its own set of issues and concerns. It is normal to want someone by your side, and it is also normal for a caregiver to still need to be able to take care of themselves. A caregiver needs to prioritize their own health not just for their own well-being, but also in order to be an effective caregiver.
Regardless of your own abilities to care for yourself, or even if you have a caregiver involved in your life, there are other support options to consider. Many support groups, educational resources, and financial support networks exist beyond your healthcare provider, family, and friends, and are available when you need an extra hand while trying to navigate life with skin cancer.
- Burdon-Jones D, Thomas P, and Baker R. “Quality of life issues in nonmetastatic skin cancer.” British Journal of Dermatology. Jan 2010. 162(1); 147-151.