I survived skin cancer

Candy Kotze Hayes was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2000. In this interview with the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), she shares her inspirational story.

Q: Candy, when were you diagnosed with skin cancer and what kind was it?
I was diagnosed with morphoic basal cell carcinoma in 2000. The cancer wasn’t totally visible on my face other than a slight itch, small veins and slight skin discoloration.

Q: Describe what you went through emotionally?
It was a complete shock to my system and although it was quite traumatic to hear that my nose had to be removed, I really didn’t understand the emotional trauma till after the experience. At the time I simply went into survival mode and decided that I had to deal with the situation and remain strong.

As I worked through the experience I realised that my life was so “empty” and realised the things that were important to me. My family, spirituality and friends kept me sane.

Q: What form of treatment/s did you have?
I had an option for chemo; however, I decided that this should be the last resort. So, I opted for surgery first. The original procedure was to remove the cancer (most of my nose and a portion of my cheek). After this, the procedures were for “rebuilding” the nose, cheek etc. These were all surgical procedures, which meant that my face was swollen and largely bruised for quite a long period of time.

Q: How did you cope with the treatment/s?
Like all traumatic events in a person's life, I realised that I couldn’t run away from the experience and while I dealt quite badly with it at first (I tried to “drink” my sorrows away – though not for long) I soon realised that I had to face facts, face my “face” and re-evaluate what was important to me. I realised that my inner self could overcome the challenges that I met on the “outside” (for a while I looked like the elephant lady).

My children constantly reminded me that they still loved me. My family always reminded me that my face would heal and that my life was not at an end. (Originally, I thought my world had come tumbling down, and that I had lost everything.)

The other important part of dealing with the treatments included my doctor who held my hand every step of the way. He took great care of me and reminded me that my face would look normal and attractive once again. He explained my options and literally coached me through the traumatic moments.

Q: Did you experience any side effects from the treatment and, if so, how did you cope with them?
My face (for almost a year) was constantly swollen, bruised and full of stitches (as a result of the many procedures I had). So, dealing with this was originally quite scary. People looked at me oddly, never knew what to say to me and it was generally awkward.

I remember going shopping with my sister and a small child (about eight) looked at me, pointed to my face and asked her mom why I looked so strange. The only way to deal with this is to realise that the situation is temporary and that there's light at the end of the tunnel.

I always maintained a positive outlook and realised that I wasn't alone. I realised that I had a lot to be thankful for and that I had my health, my strength, God and my family on my side. I also realised and learnt the true meaning of beauty being on the inside.

Regarding side effects, I experienced the usual pain that goes with plastic surgery procedures. Having a “trunk” that oozed a great deal of the time was uncomfortable. The comfort came when we started to “rebuild” the nose and cheek and the minute we started the reconstruction surgery my state of mind overcame the pain I was feeling. With painkillers etc, pain was also kept to a minimum.

The real effects were more emotional than anything. I learnt how to have inner strength and belief, and how important it is to hold onto aspects in your life that add meaning and value.

Q: What challenges did you face as a skin cancer patient and also as a survivor?
My challenges were so small compared to other cancer survivors and patients. I believe that I came out so much stronger as a person; I believe my “challenges” were in fact “lessons”.

As a survivor I realised that I wanted to tell people about skin cancer. It has been such a misunderstood type of cancer. We all think that it's nothing and that it will “go away” - we also don’t know what the signs are, or even understand how we get this cancer.

As a result, I wanted to educated people and let them know about the real danger of excessive sun exposure, how to identify skin cancer, how to use preventative measures and how to teach their children how to be sun-safe.

Q: How did you cope?
Speaking to people helped me. Researching my own condition also assisted me. My family was my lifeline, and my spirituality and relationship with God gave me my strength. The more I spoke to survivors, caregivers and cancer patients, the more I realised that we are all able to survive – against all odds.

Q: What motivated you?
The realisation that I was living, that I had a life and that I could overcome my fears, no matter what. We are survivors and as long as our mental state remains positive, we can survive anything. Traumatic events often help us to get in touch with our life purpose, and help us to re-evaluate what is and isn’t important to us. Finally, these events give us a helping hand in becoming more spiritually in tune.

Q: What advice would you give a skin cancer patient who has just been diagnosed?
Unfortunately my skin cancer was incorrectly diagnosed at first, which is why it developed into such an aggressive cancer. I always tell people: if it looks odd, have it checked. Check your body regularly – skin discoloration, small veins, scabs that won’t heal, moles that are a funny colour – have it checked.

If cancer is diagnosed, deal with it by taking it one day at a time. Don’t let the situation overwhelm you. Try not to make any huge decisions. Make a mental list of your blessings and all those things that you should be grateful for. Look around you and see what you have, realise the love around you and live for each moment.

Q: What advice would you give to family and friends of skin cancer patients?
Ensure that your doctor educates you sufficiently. Do some research. Make sure that you use preventative measures. Keep a check on your body, educate those around you and count your blessings!

Q: What advice would you give to the public regarding skin cancer?
Realise the dangers of UV exposure. Due to the ozone layer depleting, sun exposure is getting worse. I still see the “Vaalies” that go to the coast and turn red on the beach. This is so unnecessary as we have many preventative solutions.

The public needs to be aware of the dangers of sun exposure (especially for children):

  • Wear a hat
  • Don’t think because it's overcast that you won't burn
  • Use sun-block creams with a high UV factor
  • When you play sport such as golf, cover your ears, arms, back, etc
  • Sun block washes off – continue to apply it
  • Only go into the sun at the time of day when the sun is at its lowest
  • Keep away from sun beds
  • Protect your face, arms, legs, back and ears
  • Check moles, skin discoloration, small veins, etc
  • Wear face creams and foundations that have UV protection and sunscreens
  • Look out for products with the CANSA seal of approval

Q: Any other comments you’d like to make?
The more we're able to apply preventative solutions and strategies to cancer, the better. Having said this, if you have been diagnosed with skin cancer, you can survive it. We all have a survival instinct and ability, all of us have more courage than we realise and the strength to overcome anything we want to. As long as we believe this, we will.

(Source: CANSA, www.cansa.org.za, January 2009)

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