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Monday, April 16, 2012

The Cicatrice - or, Skin Cancer & Me

One day in high school French class, I learned the word “cicatrice.” It’s pronounced SEE-cuh-TREECE and it means scar. I became smitten with that word and decided it had the perfect sound for the title of a novel.

The story smashed me in the brain box, as inspiration often did when I was fifteen. I’d write a book called “La Cicatrice,” about a beautiful young woman who grows tired of people focusing on her physical beauty. She hates that no one cares about who she really is, deep inside. One day, frustrated after another person says “My, how beautiful you are,” the young woman figures out a way to stop the world's obsession with her superficial self. She takes a sharp knife (or maybe it’s a razor – I never decided) and makes a cut across her cheek. Her hope is that if she has a big scar, people will stop focusing on her face. They'll look into her eyes and seek the soul inside.

That’s as far as I got with plot planning, and I never did write the story. I’m glad I learned the word “cicatrice,” though; it’s come in handy since I’ve become a crossword puzzle lover. Nothing is wasted, I guess.

My rather, um, overwrought cicatrice plot came back to me last month when I learned that I have squamous cell cancer on my upper lip.

 First order was a chest x-ray to make sure the cancer hadn't spread to my lungs. The mouth and lungs are linked, my doc explained, and any problem is exacerbated by smoking. Those of us who were there know that no one who lived through the 50s, 60s and 70s emerged with lungs unscathed by smoke. I'll admit that it was a LONG six-day wait until I got the x-ray results: negative.


Now, on to the lip. Surgery was the next order. And as my dermatologist so frankly put it, “After surgery, the defect is sometimes larger than what we’d expect.”

I think I have a low-to-normal amount of vanity for an American woman, tempered by humility lessons from my upbringing. I'll admit that the thought of having a big honking scar ON MY LIP gave me pause. My husband joked, “Just wear a burka.” My sister-in-law Nan suggested that I grow a mustache. Equally-funny ideas sprang from other loving friends and family members. I’m laughing, I’m laughing.

This morning, I visited the surgeon who will do Mohs surgery on my lip on May 14. Mohs is a special kind of surgery that takes hours but results in the least amount of tissue being cut. The day after the Mohs surgery, my surgical wound will be closed by a plastic surgeon.

After I met the Mohs doctor, I spoke with the plastic surgeon. He explained that the human lip heals well and is somewhat forgiving of bits taken out of it. However, he said we must be prepared for the worst. That means, in short, that if too much meat is taken from my lip during the Mohs surgery, I’ll need some filler. In that case, he’ll do a lip switch.

“Lip switch?” I asked.

“It's true plastic surgery,” he explained, somewhat proudly, it seemed to me. If it’s necessary for him to do a lip switch, he’ll cut a wedge from my lower lip and attach it to my upper lip. However, he’ll leave that wedge attached to the lower lip so its normal blood flow will “feed” the transplanted piece as it becomes one with the upper lip. This process will last two weeks, during which my lips will stay closed and I’ll get my nutrition from a straw.

“Well, I’d lose weight,” I said, gamely, I thought.

“You would lose weight,” he concurred, a little too readily, I thought.

The doc added that after two weeks of shut-mouth, he’ll snip the flap and I’ll be able to use my mouth again.

Now, chances are (please dear God) I won’t need the lip switch. However, while l’m grateful for early detection (especially after seeing pictures of advanced squamous cell cancer, holy cow), and while I’m happy to have insurance that’ll pay for most of the surgery, may I just say –   EW???!!!

Lucky for me, the surgery is scheduled at the start of a month break in my teaching schedule. It'd be hard to teach with a big fat upper lip, and impossible if I couldn’t open my mouth. At home, I’ll have to learn to nag by note-writing.

Afterward, I’m guessing there will be some cicatrice. (Overwrought sigh.) If so, the world will have to look into my eyes to seek the soul within…. (The curtain falls, dramatically.)

 The pictures below show my face with the pressure bandage the night after the Mohs surgery. I kept this bandage on overnight.

I had to look at the wound after wearing the pressure bandage all night. Above is how I looked in the morning, before the plastic surgery to close the "defect." For two months after the wound repair, I massaged the scar daily. I think that helped a lot. At the three-month mark, most of the pain was gone and only a bit of numbness remained.

Photo above is from May 2012, right before the surgery. Photo below is from February, 2013, almost a year afterward. You can see how the upper lip line has changed. You can see the scar when you look closely, but I have enough facial wrinkles that it blends in. Hooray for wrinkles!
 Gail Grenier is the author of Calling All Horses, Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, and Dessert First, all available on


  1. Dear Gail, I wish for only the best outcome! Having been through surgical hell myself (and I have the cicatrices to show for it!), I hope others, especially sweet others like you (no pun intended), can be spared. Your attitude is admirable - I couldn't have been as jocular, in writing nor speaking. ♥

    1. Thank you dear Marga! I felt like crap when I came home from the doctor. After I wrote the blog post, I felt better. The healing power of writing, hey??