I don’t consider myself a particularly vain person. I have never been really pretty and so that has not been how I judged myself or how I judge others. Of course, I like to look at beautiful people, but I find that after the first impressions fade, everyone has got beautiful bits and not-so-beautiful bits.
However, I am really struggling with having this huge, bloody, scabby wound on my nose. It completely changes the way people look at me and react to me and so changes the way I react back. I feel all those bad words: deformed… a freak.. ugly…. gross…. frightening…….
I was diagnosed with a basal cell carcinoma – a little skin cancer – on the end of my nose. The great news is that this is treatable and does not usually spread or become really dangerous. I am so grateful for that. The bad news is that it has to be treated and none of the treatments are pleasant.
I have been trying to get it sorted for a long time. First of all I tried Solareze which should have burned it out but turned out not to. Now, I am using a cream called Imiquimod which works by stimulating the immune system. It causes the body to produce interferon, a chemical that attacks cancer. I have to rub it into the affected area on my nose 5 nights a week for six weeks.
If this doesn’t work then I may have to have it cut out and get reconstruction, so I am really grateful for this cream. But it is having a horrific effect. As you can see from the picture, I have a big, raised, red, raw, suppurating area all over the top of my nose. I am less than half way in, so this is only going to get worse. At the moment, it doesn’t hurt as long as I don’t knock it, so that is great too. But the way it looks is beginning to really get me down.
There are some really practical things: I can’t go out in the sun at all with it, which means that in Morocco, I am basically housebound or need to cover up with a bandage. I also have to be really careful not to knock it when I am getting dressed and also when I wash, drying is a very delicate operation. I can’t swim. I can’t really run/walk/bike/work out too hard because it starts to throb and seep and I am worried about infection from sweat.
But, the real problem is the way people look at me and how that makes me feel. Generally speaking, there are two camps: those who can only look at my nose, and those who don’t look at me at all but keep their eyes firmly down. People who catch me out of the corner of their eye, do a double take and then either stare or look away. Children are the most honest because they just stare but some of them are frightened. Some people ask me about it and that makes things a bit better because I can explain, but of course that is not possible for everyone. You also get the occasional idiot, “Hey, I like your nose,” a young guy yelled at me the other day as he and his mates had a good laugh. “Really? You like skin cancer?”
So, how does it make me feel? It makes me ashamed. I know that that is totally irrational but there it is. I look like a freak and I feel like one. Normally I am really outgoing and chat with everyone I meet. I like my fellow human beings and am endlessly interested in them, but I can’t engage with them when they are looking at me in horror. It also impacts my work. How do you interview someone properly when they are uncomfortable with you?
There have been some funny moments, though. We have two kittens and they love the scab, they see it as dinner and keep lunging at it, gross but makes me giggle. One morning, I looked in the mirror and was horrified to see that it had spread up to my eyebrows in just one night. I prodded it gently just to find that I must have knocked it in my sleep and it was just that the scab had come off and travelled up. Again, gross but made me giggle. And my flatmate, Alice, calls me Rudolf…
There is a big positive, though. A real one. For the first time, and to a tiny degree, I understand a little of what it is like to be looked at/judged/categorised because you look different to everyone else. Suddenly, I am not Alice any more I am just an ugly wound on a nose. I am really hoping that my problem is temporary and will be over in three and a half more weeks but I also really hope that this experience makes me more empathetic to anyone who feels that they do not fit “normal” and suffers because of it. A lifetime of that would take a lot of courage to deal with.
Postscript: October 2019. The cream worked and my nose went back to normal. It was such a relief to just be able to go about my ordinary day and interact with people as me not a nose. I have just found another little rough patch on my forehead I need to get checked. Please, wear your sunscreen and take care!
If you liked the blog, check out my first book! Dodging Elephants – 8000 miles across Africa on a little bike.