By Sandy Oitzinger
My Scary Starry Scar
Before March 24th of this year, the name Merkel for me was loosely associated with my misgivings as a global citizen about mistreatment of the nation of Greece. Post March 24, however, it looms personally larger because of its part as an identifier of a dreaded skin cancer known as Merkel Cell Carcinoma.
As a self-fancied wordsmith, I am deeply affected by the lyricism in the medical community. The lesion between my right cheekbone and jaw line had to come out, of course, but who knew that there was a “sentinel” node positioned at the angle of my mandible. With our Firetower landmark, what Helenan would not be impressed by a “sentinel” node? I was also impressed by the descriptors used to describe cancers. Did you know that some cancers are “indolent,” while others are “avid.” I don’t mind my sportsmen being avid, but I prefer that my cancers be slothful lay abouts, please and thank you. On the upside, there are cancer fighting weaponry drugs we can brandish that inhibit a protein known as the “Programmed Death” (PD-1) cell. The drug prompts the immune system “to get up out of its rocking chair” and go attack the cancer,” says Paul Nghiem, an investigator with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle who led the Merkel cell study.[i]
As a kid, my Sicilian last name, Scire, pronounced “skee-ree,” drew lots of hilarity from the neighborhood kids. Many thought it should be pronounced Scary as in Sandy Scary-Face. No big leap to change the appellation to Sandy Scarry-Face, and I’ll tell you why I am just thrilled to do that. My dermatological nurse and I decided we would do a deep punch on the nodule on my cheek. It seemed like no big deal at the time. A week later the labs came back and we learned that a wide-extraction along with removal of a small lymph node was needed. Why?
Well, the Merkel Cell beasty likes to metastasize into the lungs, brain, liver, etc. The lab also said the markers for lung cancer were not evident, so my hope was that we caught it early. In order to avoid a 4-hour only mildly sedated surgery, we opted for a quickly scheduled one-hour surgery under general anesthesia at St. Pat’s in Missoula. Sentinel lymph nodes material was negative, so we thought we were home-free. Pathology said there was not enough of a clear margin in the depths below the tumor, however, so a second surgery was scheduled.
This brought to mind the lesson in tenacity shared by my first college accounting professor, Charlie Mandeville of Carroll College. He was asked “suppose it’s only a dime?” His answer: “You gotta keep lookin’ for that son of a buck UNTIL YOU FIND IT!” Another upside, we headed off the beasty, by removal of the nodes, and my dermatologist says my healing inflammation may kill off the remaining cells. We can’t know that though, so another .2 cm must come out.
Truly, I don’t want to whine about this, but just Google “lyrics with face in the title.” I lost my uterus 22 years ago, and honestly I barely missed it. But sheesh, I was just getting to like this face.
In keeping with my usual penchant for itemization, there are many up-sides to this:
- A neighbor who says: “Your face is still pretty, and now you look so mysterious.”
- Using up the saggy bits on the right side, a one-sided facelift, if you will.
- A kind of dimple, though honestly, not that well-placed.
- When you’ve got this scar thing going on, it’s really an incentive to up your game hair-wise.
- And BEST OF ALL, there is a very good chance that I may well avoid the kind of cancer that is more likely to shorten my life.
So that’s why I choose to emphasize the planetary part. For now, at least, my facial scar looks a bit like a descending shooting star. Or alternatively like a waxing crescent moon. So if you want to take a picture of me, be sure to take it from the scary, starry side. That’s the good one.
Sandy Oitzinger has written a novella series, a memoir and several humor books. Her service as Helena City Commissioner from 2001 through 2008 informed her work and family life at the time. In retirement she remains active enough in her community to annoy any number of people, her adult children chief among them. Sandy received word on June 9, 2016 that her two facial surgeries to treat Merkel Cell Carcinoma worked, and she is now cancer free.