Interview: Candy Kotze Hayes Skin Cancer Survivor
Candy, when were you diagnosed with skin cancer and what kind was it?
I was diagnosed with Morphoic Basil Cell Carcinoma in 2000. The cancer wasn’t totally visible on my face other than a slight itch, small veins and slight skin discoloration.
Describe what you went through emotionally?
It was a complete shock to my system and although it was quite traumatic to hear that my nose had to be removed, I really didn’t understand the emotional trauma till after the experience. At the time I simply went into survival mode and decided that I had to deal with the situation and remain strong. As I worked through the experience I realized that my life was so “empty” and realized the things that were important to me. My family, spirituality and friends kept me sane!
What form of treatment/s did you have?
I had an option for chemo however decided that this should be the last resort so opted for surgery first. The original procedure was to remove the cancer (most of my nose and a portion of my cheek) – after this the procedures were for “rebuilding” the nose, cheek etc. These were all surgery procedures, which meant that my face was swollen and largely bruised for quite a long period of time!
How did you cope with the treatment/s?
Like all traumatic events in a persons life, I realized that I couldn’t run away from the experience and while I dealt quite badly with it at first (I tried to “drink” my sorrows away – though not for long…) I soon realized that I had to face facts, face my “face” and re-evaluate what was important to me. I realized that my inner self could overcome the challenges that I met on the “outside” meaning – the way I looked and appeared (for a while I looked like the elephant lady…).
My children constantly reminded me that they still loved me – my family always reminded me that my face would heal that my life was not at an end.. (Originally I thought my world had come tumbling down and that I had lost everything…).
The other important part of dealing with the treatments included my doctor who held my hand every step of the way – took great care of me and reminded me that my face would once again look normal and attractive. He explained my options and literally coached me through the traumatic moments.
Did you experience any side effects from the treatment and if so how did you cope with them?
My face (for almost a year) was constantly swollen, bruised and full of stitches (as a result of the many procedures I had) – so dealing with this was originally quite scary. People looked at me oddly, never knew what to say to me and it was generally awkward. I remember going shopping with my sister and a small child (about 8) looked at me, pointed to my face and asked her mom why I looked so strange… the only way to deal with this is to realize that the situation is temporary and that there is light at the end of the tunnel! I always maintained a positive outlook and realized that I was not alone. I realized that I had a lot to be thankful for and that I had my health, my strength, God and my family on my side. I also realized & learnt the true meaning that beauty is on the inside.
Regarding side effects: The usual pain that goes with plastic surgery procedures – discomfort with having a “trunk” which oozed a great deal of the time was uncomfortable. The comfort came when we started to “rebuild” the nose and cheek and the minute we started the reconstruction surgery my state of mind overcame the pain that I was feeling. With painkillers etc pain was also kept to a minimum.
The real effects were more emotional than anything – I learnt how to have inner strength and belief and how important it is to hold onto aspects in your life that add meaning and value.
What challenges did you face as a skin cancer patient and also as a survivor?
My challenges were so small compared to other cancer survivors and patients – I believe that I came out so much stronger as a person – I believe my “challenges” were in fact “lessons”!
As a survivor I realized that I wanted to tell people about Skin Cancer – it has been such a misunderstood type of cancer – much like my own experience – people don’t fully understand this type of cancer – we all think that its nothing and that it will “go away” we also don’t know what the signs are or even understand how we get this cancer. As a result I wanted to educated people and let them know of the dangers of excessive sun exposure, how to identify skin cancer, use preventative measures and to teach their children how to be sun safe.
How did you cope?
Speaking to people helped me. Researching what I had also assisted. My family was my lifeline and my spirituality and relationship with God gave me my strength. The more I spoke to survivors, caregivers and cancer patients, the more I realized that we are all able to survive – against all odds.
What motivated you?
The realization that I was living, that I had a life and that I could overcome my fears – no matter what – we are survivors and as long as our mental state remains positive, we can survive anything. Traumatic events often help us to get in touch with our life purpose, re-evaluate what is and isn’t important to us and finally gives us a helping hand in becoming more spiritually in tune.
What advice would you give a skin cancer patient who has just been diagnosed?
Unfortunately my skin cancer was incorrectly diagnosed at first, which is why it developed into such an aggressive cancer. I always tell people – if it looks odd, have it checked. Check your body regularly – skin discoloration, small veins, scabs that won’t heal, moles that are a funny colour – have it checked.
Once diagnosed, deal with it by taking it a day at a time – don’t let the situation overwhelm you – try not to make any huge decisions and deal with it a step at a time. Make a mental list of your blessings and all those things that you should be grateful for – look around you and see what you have, realize the love around you and live for each moment.
What advice would you give to family and friends of skin cancer patients?
Ensure that your doctor educates you sufficiently – do some research. Make sure that you use preventative measures – keep a check on your body – educate those around you and count your blessings!
How important is communication within the family?
Vital. I explained to my children exactly what was going to happen – I told them that I would not have a nose for a while and that I would look terrible for some time – I explained that my face would be swollen and that I would have stitches for a while. This helped them with the shock – I also explained that the cancer would not cause my death however had to be dealt with immediately to prevent it from spreading into my brain etc.
Explaining to your family exactly what is going to happen, when it will happen and what the end result is, lessons their own feelings of fear and the unknown. I also found speaking to them about the process and procedures empowered me and made me realize that my situation was not the end of the world.
In the process I have educated my children regarding skin cancer and they in turn educate their friends!
How important is it for cancer patients and survivors to join a support group?
From my own experience I found it invaluable when I spoke to people in a similar position as myself. Based on this I think there are many benefits in joining a support group – to talk about our diagnosis, the healing process etc. The support of people who are in a similar position to you is invaluable.
How has having skin cancer impacted on you life over the years?
Without a doubt the experience has changed my life 360 degrees! I have downsized in every aspect of my life. I used to live a very excessive life – stress, driven, corporate junky and enough was never enough. Having Skin Cancer brought me down to earth – reminded me of the important people and aspects in life – helped me regain my sense of purpose and forced me to re-evaluate how I was living my life.
I was once asked if I had to live my life over again, would I want to change it? My answer is absolutely no. Even though the experience was difficult it changed my life for the better. I have the privilege of speaking to cancer survivors, patients and caregivers on a regular basis. I am able to offer them encouragement and I have a sense of giving to others. I have had the opportunity of being on the CANSA calendar, spoken at numerous events, appeared on television – all of this has given me a chance to be a better person and to give back to others. The impact has been huge and positive – it was needed and gave me a life that has purpose.
What advice would you give to the public regarding skin cancer / SunSmart awareness?
Realise that the dangers of UV exposure. Due to the ozone layer depleting, sun exposure is getting worse. I still see the “vaalies” that go to the coast and turn red on the beach! This is so unnecessary – we have many preventative solutions. The public needs to be aware of the dangers of sun exposure (especially their children). Especially now during the holiday season….
• Wear a hat
• Don’t think because it is overcast that you wont burn – you do
• Use sun block creams with a high UV factor
• When you play sport such as golf – cover your ears, arms, back etc
• Sun block washes off – continue to apply it
• Only go into the sun etc at the time of day when the sun is at its lowest
• Keep away from sun beds!
• Protect your face, arms, legs, back, ears
• Check moles, skin discoloration, small veins etc
• Wear face creams, foundations etc that have UV protection and sun screens
• Look out for products with the CANSA seal of approval
Any other comments you’d like to make?
The more we are able to apply preventative solutions and strategies to cancer, the better. Having said this, if you have been diagnosed with skin cancer – you can survive it – we all have a survival instinct and ability – all of us have more courage than we realize and the strength to overcome anything we want to – as long as we believe this, we will.