Real Life

Emma Lovell’s skin cancer nightmare

The Auckland mum has already had 10 operations on her face, neck and ear – and she’s scheduled in for more
Michelle Hyslop

Auckland mum-of-two Emma Lovell is used to people staring at the scars on her face in public. Sometimes she mentally blocks out the attention, but in other moments, the disability-care support worker wishes people simply wouldn’t notice her.

Emma – who has had 10 operations on her face, neck and ear to remove skin cancer – has spent the past 13 years fighting basal cell carcinoma that continues to grow back.

“I get it cut out and then it grows back right next to the scars, so on my forehead, I have scars on top of scars,” says Emma, who is mum to Penny, 15, and Liam, four, and was first diagnosed with skin cancer in late 2009.

“I’ve had people I didn’t know come up to me and ask what happened to my face. I even had a lady I knew say I sinned in my past life and that’s why I’m dealing with this!”

Emma, 38, found out she had basal cell carcinoma (BCC), the most common type of skin cancer, after a small spot popped up on the right-hand side of her forehead, which looked a lot like a pimple. Gradually, the spot became itchy and red, and started to bleed, before turning in to a little hole.

“I had no idea at all about skin cancer but remembered I’d got burnt a couple of times quite badly as a kid, where I came out in blisters. Mainly, though, skin cancer is genetic,” explains Emma, whose BCC spots sometimes disappear before coming back. “I remember wearing a plaster over the spot to my friend’s hen’s night and being worried I’d still have to wear it to her wedding in 2010. My doctor gave me skin cancer cream to try, but it didn’t go away.”

Her first operation to remove the spot was in 2012, around two and a half years after her initial diagnosis, which she says was due to long hospital waiting lists. It involved Emma having 17 stitches in her forehead, which frightened her then-four-year-old Penny but gave the doting mum hope it was over.

“When I first saw the specialist, he’d said he expected to see plenty more of me and I didn’t know what he meant at the time,” says Emma, laughing despite feeling frustrated about her ongoing struggle. “I now understand! I just had my 10th surgery and they’re still coming.”

Within a year of having the skin cancer removed, it had grown back and Emma endured another operation, including a skin graft in 2014. Six weeks after that, Emma was back in surgery, having more spots cut from her face.

“Unfortunately for me, nine times out of 10 my skin cancer has grown back and if I left it, it could grow deeper and bigger, and get into other parts of my body,” shares Emma, who says she has lost count of her scars. “Every year since that first hospital visit, I’ve either had surgery on my face or been sprayed with liquid nitrogen, which freezes the skin cancer and I come out in blisters.

“Sometimes if I’ve had operations or my face sprayed, I don’t want to go out, but I have to because I’m a mum and I work.”

Known to grow on parts of the skin that get a lot of sun, BCC can be prevented by limiting exposure to its rays. This means Emma rarely spends time in the sun and if she does, any family outings require plenty of shade.

She recalls having to cover up as much as possible when she used to take her now-teenage daughter to primary school, including smothering herself in sunblock, and wearing a hat and headband across her forehead.

“A friend of my daughter at the time told Penny that her mum couldn’t figure out who I was, but then she said she remembered because I’m the one who always has a headband and hat on,” Emma shares. “I kind of laughed it off, but it’s quite upsetting because it’s not fun and I don’t want to be covered up all the time. I don’t really have a choice.”

In May, Emma had surgery inside her ear to remove BCC, which included another skin graft from under her right arm. Unfortunately, surgeons didn’t get all of the skin cancer out and so the North Shore mum is gearing up for more operations on her ear this year, as well as to remove another spot that’s returned on her face.

“There seems to be no end in sight – just pain and scars – and some days are harder than others,” says Emma, who refers to herself as a skin cancer warrior. “But my kids keep me going, and I have a really good support group of friends and family. I decided to share my story to warn people that if they have spots they’re worried about, or something goes away and comes back, please get it checked out. It’s important.”

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