What I’m really thinking: a plastic surgeon on a terrible journey to survival

The highlight of my training was having my hair cut down to an alarming short bob. I felt better. This, I am convinced, was significant. Since my graduation in 2002, cancer-related stress and symptoms…

What I’m really thinking: a plastic surgeon on a terrible journey to survival

The highlight of my training was having my hair cut down to an alarming short bob. I felt better. This, I am convinced, was significant.

Since my graduation in 2002, cancer-related stress and symptoms have interfered with my career. At the time of my diagnosis and surgery, I was depressed, home sick with severe pain, and undergoing radiotherapy and chemo. I will never forget sitting in bed in a cast – with the wrist on my right hand strapped in place – doing my nine-to-five shift while worrying about the search for a good plastic surgeon. I was occupied not with work or friends, but instead having an anxious back-and-forth with the medical team and hospital. I began suffering from severe depression and anxiety. For reasons I cannot fathom, I also began suffering from severe acne, a symptom that I know only now was connected to my original diagnosis.

I spent three weeks on a bad acid diet but nothing helped. I began to self-medicate by binge drinking alcohol, before moving on to cannabis. Acne flared. It was nightmarish. My GP’s visit consisted of me battling to remember the type of acne I had. Having looked up about epidermis, I discovered they were painless to the touch. The only thing serious was when pimples grew hard and made it feel like my teeth had been loosened. I was recommended retinoids and one of the worst things that happened was that my spotty face contorted as I tried to squeeze them out. And I don’t mean squeeze them – I mean frantically twist my face upwards in a terrifying motion in order to burst them. Even at one minute to midnight, I still felt bemused and nauseous. Finally, the GP’s visit became numbing and I realised I’d become very sick, because I’d been on my hands and knees getting pus out of my eye socket for 30 minutes. She said I needed to come back in six weeks, so I did.

My friend and I couldn’t stop laughing as we walked in after six weeks to find that the most painful side-effect of the latest round of drugs was me being sprayed with a bad smelling antiseptic. Thank God.

I underwent 200 courses of antibiotics in two years; the worst I’ve been through with acne. My dermatologist warned me that they don’t work as well as they should. He told me that I was improving and would be able to return to work and that everything was wonderful. I laughed that off, for obvious reasons.

Three weeks after leaving hospital, I returned to work and I don’t know what set me off, because at first I felt OK. It wasn’t until I realised that my colleagues were doing their nine-to-five shift while I was recovering from radiotherapy, trying to do what I was trained to do, that I realised I was struggling. I had an active and long-standing condition, and trying to work hard was really hard.

At this point, I’m pretty sure I contemplated ending it all; that I was so unfit and couldn’t do any of the things I’d been trained to do, I might as well stick to being a home nurse. But then I realised I’d moved on and I’d done enough for my body.

I’m grateful for the things I can’t be rid of: I’m thankful for my friends and family, and I’m always grateful for my cancer-free skin. I will never forget what happened; I will never forget the cancer that slowly killed me for eight years. I have always had a vision of hope for the future, and even though my skin looks terrible now, it is the only thing that saved me from living a life with dermatitis for the rest of my life.

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