When Your Insect Sting is Actually Skin Cancer

GRAPHIC/TRIGGER/FYI WARNING: I will be sharing images of moles/freckles/basal cell carcinomas in this post so please don’t read on if you don’t want to see them.

Well HELLO, dear reader, how are you?!

I haven’t spoken to you in AGES! I’ve been AWOL, I know. 2022 has been A LOT. What. A. Year.

But something brought me out of my writing slump. I have a somewhat interesting story (or at least I – and many of my friends – think so!) and where else to share it but here on my blog?

Pretty much since we moved house end of July, life has just felt completely full on. It’s the reason I haven’t written and something I very much vow to change in 2023. It sounds crazy, but I genuinely think writing regularly and sending my thoughts out into the abyss helps keep me grounded and somewhat sane, so it’s no wonder I’ve been feeling like things are so out of control lately. All work and no writing makes Meg a dull girl.

There’s been a lot that’s happened this year which I’ll save for another post, but most recently has been the onslaught of health issues faced by me, James, and even the bloody dog. Since about August this year, the issues we’ve been dealing with have felt neverending.

So let’s start with mine, shall we, and this ongoing pollava I’ve been having.

The infamous insect sting

Just over 4 years ago, I was in Italy attending our cousins’ wedding (well – James’s cousin. When I say “ours” that makes us sound like we’re interrelated, and we’re not). We were attending a beautiful wedding on the Sorrento coast, when halfway through the day, I was stung by something that left me with a cluster of blisters on my upper back/shoulder. It was probably about the size of a 2 pence piece, and it looked quite garish.

It also really hurt. As soon as I could, I went to the toilets to look in a mirror where I discovered an absolutely HIDEOUS cluster of blisters – NOT what you would want when dressed all nice for a wedding – and I felt quite self-conscious because you could see it all poking outside of my dress. Not wanting to repulse other people, I did my best to hide it, but it was also REALLY sore. Given that I was at a wedding in the middle of nowhere in Sorrento, I knew I’d just have to crack on and try to hide it as best I could for the rest of the day and deal with it tomorrow.

I can’t really remember what happened after that, but the blisters must have burst and just turned into scabbing/scarring. And for the last four years, I’ve fielded so many questions from people who have noticed it and commented on it, asking what exactly it is, whether I’ve had it looked at, and so on. I’ve even googled on and off for years what the hell could have stung me like that, I’ve been so curious, but I honestly never thought it was anything. I just figured some little Italian insect had stung me and my skin had scarred like it does sometimes if I have a bad cold sore, but fast forward 4 years, and here I am today having gone through the last four months of back and forth with Salford Royal for treatment for what it actually is: skin cancer.

It isn’t – and never was – an insect bite or sting. It’s a Basal Cell Carcinoma, a super common, super treatable form of skin cancer.

Here’s a photo of it that I was asked to take by the hospital on my first appointment before undergoing surgery/chemotherapy cream (the dots around it were drawn on by the doctor and not part of it). Not the best photo, but you get the idea.

What led me to finally get it checked?

It’s actually a bit of a funny story.

Whilst I was on holiday earlier this year with my family, my sister pointed at a freckle on my forearm and asked what it was, recognising that she hasn’t noticed it before and it seemed pretty noticeable.

The funny thing is that I had been noticing this particular freckle (and it was a freckle – not a mole) for maybe a year or so at that point. It had been growing for the last year, and it was starting to go a funny shape and get a bit darker in the middle. It didn’t really match the description of a melanoma online, so I didn’t do anything about it. Here is an image of that too, that the consultant asked me to take and save at my first appointment. Again, not the best photo, but you get the idea.

Finally Taking Action

When I got home from holiday, I reluctantly called the doctors. I was really nervous about doing so and felt a bit embarrassed in case I was just overthinking. I really didn’t want to waste anyone’s time over a freckle, plus I wasn’t sure of exactly what to say. Do I just tell the receptionist “Hi, I’ve got a freckle on my arm that’s been getting bigger for the last year and is a weird shape and it’s going a bit darker in the middle”? Turns out, YES, that was all they needed to hear, actually. I was given an appointment straight away, and the doctor I saw measured it, asked some questions about it, and said he didn’t like the look of it, so referred me for an urgent two-week consultation with a dermatologist.

During this appointment, I casually raised the issue of the insect bite scar on my back, asking him whether he thinks that’s anything to be concerned about as well. He said no, it’s just a scar, but the freckle is a concern. Fair play, just as I thought, and the freckle was why I had gone in the first place. I felt so grateful for my sister pushing me to see a doctor, because a medical professional now didn’t like the look of the freckle either. It reassured me that I wasn’t wasting people’s time.

On that note, I have to say I have never, not once throughout this entire 4-month-and-counting ordeal, been made to feel daft, that I’m wasting anybody’s time, or that I’m overreacting. Maybe that’s because it’s all turned out to be something; I don’t know. But I’m so grateful, it really matters, especially when you already feel fairly anxious about it all. What I would also say is that YOU know your skin, YOU know your body. If something isn’t right, follow your gut, and get it checked.

How it was diagnosed

After longer than anticipated waits due to the immense pressure faced by the wonderful NHS, confusion caused by our house move and change of address/city, I finally had my appointment with the dermatologist late August. I wasn’t worried about it really, thinking that I was just going to find out the next steps.

I attended the clinic where I was asked to strip off so the consultant could do a full body scan. I was actually really impressed – I’m here about a freckle on my arm but if you’re going to look at my entire body and check all is well, that’s more than OK with me! I’ll strip naked and do a lap of the building if you’re going to cover all angles for me.

As she was examining my body, she asks me about the insect bite scar on my back. I tell her I was stung 4 years ago in Italy, but that it’s just a scar according to the doctor I had seen previously. She doesn’t say anything, continues to examine me, before asking me to get dressed so we can go over next steps.

It is here that she tells me, ever so nonchalantly, that the reason I’m there – the freckle on my arm – isn’t something she’s hugely worried about, but she’s going to refer me for removal anyway, as it does technically go against the criteria for the average mole. She’d rather be safe than sorry. I expected this because my Dad has had moles removed that all turned out fine, but I know that if there’s even a smidgen of concern, they’d rather be safe than sorry. Then she casually tells me, “but that thing on your back is a Basal Cell Carcinoma, and we need to look at how we’re going to treat it.”

I looked at her like… OK? Whatever you just said (because at that point, it honestly sounded like just a jumble of words), what’s that mean?

“It’s skin cancer,” she says. “But don’t worry, it’s not life-threatening.”

Oh. Erm. OK?

Skin cancer.

But not life-threatening.

WTF DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?!

As somebody who’s never had skin cancer before, I was a little confused and, perhaps in hindsight, a tad in shock.

She goes on to tell me that she can’t 100% confirm it until I’ve had the biopsy, but that I should trust her – it is a Basal Cell Carcinoma. She is 99% sure, and the biopsy will just be a formality to confirm how it should be treated. She then went on to share all the information and all the next steps and bla bla bla, because, well, call me dramatic, but all I’d heard was cancer at that point, and my thoughts were flying around my mind at 1000 miles a minute.

Honestly, I know I can be dramatic at times (can’t we all?!) but all I was thinking was that my friend was currently (at that point) dying of cancer, and I have watched loved ones go through cancer, and what exactly does this cancer mean for me?

It was at this point that she asked whether I had any questions, but honestly, I didn’t even know what to make of what she’d just said let alone have any questions. I just wanted to get out of there so I could start looking into these so-called Basal Cell Carcinomas. Then she asked whether I had anybody with me today, and I was like… “no? Should I have somebody with me?”

SHOULD I HAVE SOMEONE WITH ME?!

It turns out, dear reader, that this particular type of skin cancer is actually SUPER common – like the most common form of skin cancer. Super common, super treatable, and really not that big of a deal (or at least that’s how it feels to me. I’m not invalidating your feelings if it is for you.) But at that point prior to my extensive research, I had no idea what it meant, nor how I should feel about it, and I guess in hindsight I was definitely in a bit of shock and panicking a little.

I left the hospital in a complete daze, I called James straight away who was working away to explain to him what had happened, and I drove home wondering what the hell all of this meant.

So what does it mean?

It turns out it means very little – well in comparison with the types of cancer that I really, really don’t want. These things are super common, super treatable, not life-threatening (which, thanks to her, I already knew), and actually very minor. Forgive me for sounding crass, but if you’re going to be unfortunate enough to get Cancer, this is absolutely the one you’d want. It is NOT like those other types, it does NOT require gruelling chemotherapy or radiotherapy sessions, and for that much, I felt beyond lucky.

Please note: if this is something you also have, I am NOT in any way invalidating or minimising your experience. But this is my blog, and my experience of it, and therefore I have to be honest about my own opinions of it. Your thoughts and feelings are valid, and you are totally within your right to have them. Your experience is your own, and nobody can dictate what it’s like for you.

I guess this is a long post already and there’s actually quite a bit more to this story, so I’ll break it up into maybe a little miniseries for anyone interested in general health and 2022 real-life sagas.

So over the next few (shorter!) posts, I’ll share how I ended up with skin cancer, the mole removal experience and biopsy results and the absolute SAGA trying to get hold of chemotherapy cream!!!

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