The Scariest Year, the Luckiest Year

By Michelle Charlesworth

From the 2002 edition of The Skin Cancer Foundation Journal.

It's been a scary year in New York City. I'm a journalist in New York City.  My skin cancer was followed six months later by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.  I was front and center covering both — my own basal cell carcinoma and the collapse of the twin towers.  In both cases, you could say I ran for my life.

Figure 1. Michelle Charlesworth, WABC-TV newscaster and anchor.
Michelle Charlesworth came to Eyewitness News, WABC-TV, in 1998 as a General Assignment Reporter and Anchor. Prior to that she was a Reporter/Anchor at NBC-17 in Raleigh, NC, and at ABC's WCTI in New Bern, NC, and Atlantic City, NJ. When not on the air, she travels, works out, paints, and goes to flea markets.

As I said — it's been a scary year.

The worst thing about skin cancer is, left untreated, it can kill you. The second worst thing is worrying about the scar you may be left with after treatment.  You won't know how bad it will be until the doctor starts cutting and learns just what the cancer is like.

This is particularly nervewracking when the cancer is on your face — as mine was.

I started out with a barely noticeable bump next to my nose.  Look at the picture (Figures 2 and 3).  It'll show you that the cancer was so small only my doctors could get a good shot of it.  The doctors came later.  For quite a while, only the woman who did my facials noticed, and she thought it was a backed-up pore.  Her repeated attempts to "pop" it seemed reasonable then, but were probably a bad idea.

An Accidental Diagnosis

My diagnosis happened completely by accident.  In January, 2001, I was covering a story on cosmetic surgery at the Juva Skin & Laser Center in New York.  Thank God I walked in there that day.  On the way out, Frank Bell (my photographer) stopped and asked Dr. Bruce Katz, Director of the Center, about a blemish that was worrying him.  His question reminded me of the blemish on my nose, so I showed it to Dr. Katz, too. The doctor pointed to Frank and said "mole."  And then, he pointed to me, and said "Yes, I've been wondering about that ever since you walked in.  If you hadn't asked me, I'd have asked you how long it's been there."

"I don't know," I said.

"Well, I'm worried about it," said Dr. Katz.  "It looks like a skin cancer. In fact, it looks like a textbook case."

Until he said that, the word "cancer" hadn't entered my mind.

Two Minutes Later, the Biopsy

Two minutes later, I was lying back in a chair getting a biopsy.  That's a small bit of tissue taken from the suspicious bump and then studied under a microscope. Funny how life can change course like that.

A few minutes later, my clothes were off and Dr. Katz was checking every other inch of skin on my body.  People who have one skin cancer often have another. Thankfully, there were no more suspicious spots.

Two Days Later, the Test Result

Within two days, the test was back and almost as soon as I heard the words "skin cancer," I was being scheduled for surgery.

Lucky for me — very lucky for me — the doctors who took care of me are incredible.  Really. I checked. Dr. Katz made the diagnosis, and since then has overseen every step of my treatment. Dr. Ira Davis performed Mohs surgery to remove the cancer, and Dr. Michael Bruck put my face back together again.

Not the Type for Skin Cancer

Most people are mystified when they hear that I got skin cancer.  They didn't think I was the type.  I don't fit the profile: I am 30 years old with no freckles or moles and have olive skin that never burns.  But I had spent a lot of time outside in the sun.  Also, I told Juva's doctors that I grew up in North Carolina drinking well water.  Could there be an aggravating arsenic component to my skin cancer story? Maybe.

Whatever the reason, I had a basal cell carcinoma, and the doctors told me that Mohs surgery would remove it with the least amount of unnecessary tissue loss.  As it was explained to me, in Mohs surgery, the cancer is removed one layer at a time, and each is looked at under the microscope.  The moment a layer is reached that has no cancer cells, the surgery is stopped.

charlesworth_1 charlesworth_2
Figure 2. (photo of 1/22/01) Skin cancer looks like minor blemish at diagnosis. Figure 3. (photo of 2/6/01)
BCC before the surgery.

The Smallest Scar

For me, that meant the smallest scar — important for my own vanity — but also because I'm on air.  I report and anchor at WABC-TV in New York.  It's pretty obvious that a facial scar was not going to help my career.  So I had my fingers crossed, cried a lot, leaned on my family and boyfriend, and scheduled surgery for the following Tuesday.

A Tricky Operation on TV

I made sure Frank Bell would be in the operating room with his video camera and plenty of tape to record the entire procedure.  I wanted viewers to learn something about paying attention to funny-looking bumps.  Not everyone has chance meetings with benevolent dermatologists.

My surgery was shown on television.

As it turned out, Dr. Davis had to go in three times to remove all of my cancer.  At one point I remember a piece of my face (the size of a stack of dimes) sitting on a square of gauze next to me.  Later, when I saw the pictures, I fought to keep in the goriest shots. I wanted to show the scary, ugly truth of having an operation.  My boss was supportive and the shots stayed in.  The Mohs surgery took four hours the surgery to correct the defect took another three.  I was very much awake during the entire ordeal and spent the breaks sitting up terrified watching the movie "Armageddon."  Perhaps not the best choice, considering the circumstances.

"Do the Best You Can"

Plastic Surgeon Dr. Bruck worked miracles. He figured out how to hide the scar in my laugh-line and I cannot underscore how important that was. Understand — I sit here composed as I write this — but there was a moment when I grabbed Dr. Bruck and, choking back tears, begged him to "do the best you can."  That was a very low point.  And I felt like an idiot — but I had to say it.

I fought to keep in the goriest shots.
Figure 4. Postoperative scar is limited to laugh-line.

Back to the surgery.  The post-op picture (Figure 4) shows a stretched cheek and 27 perfectly placed stitches.  Dr. Bruck basically managed to give me a reverse face lift — which is the only reason the scar lies in my laughline.

Initially there was a lot of swelling.  A lot.  It looked awful for about two weeks.  Again, vain me, I felt really low.  Then, considering my incredible luck thus far, I felt guilty for worrying about how it would look.

A Private Affair Made Public

That was one of the scariest times in my private life and I'm so glad I made it public.  Two of my friends (also on air) found cancers (they say) as a direct result of my story, and a year later the e-mails and calls from viewers continue to come in. The spots they once worried about and ignored — now, they've been checked.

When people call me about "something" on their skin, I try to help them as much as I can. I also tell them to cover up in the sun and pass on the advice to their friends.  And in many cases I am proud to say, viewers tell me "I never would have gone to the doctor for this — Thank God I saw your program."

A Year Later

It's now been a year since the surgery. I still have a scar from the edge of my nose to the corner of my mouth — but Dr. Katz's laser treatments are slowly fading it. Makeup and great lighting cover the rest.

I'm still reporting every day, anchoring Sundays (I only missed four Sundays because of the surgery!) and I've already made it through one summer worshipping sunscreen instead of the sun.

So, 2001 will go down as one of the scariest years of my life but also a very lucky one.

Comment by Bruce E. Katz, MD

When I saw the defect on Michelle Charlesworth's face after the basal cell carcinoma had been removed, I thought she would never appear on television again.

While the cancer on the surface was very small, it had been there for a long time, burrowing deeper and deeper.  It is very unusual for a BCC to be so big and so deep in so young a woman.

I am glad to say that I was wrong about her career.  The surgery to repair the defect was expert and successful, leaving only a scar in the laughline on one side of her mouth.  Even that is fading as a result of laser treatments. She is a star newscaster and anchor on television just as she was before.

Michelle's spirit is incredible.  She is really motivated to spread the word about the importance of having any suspicious mole or lump on the skin examined as soon as it appears.  When she says she now worships sunscreen instead of the sun, people pay attention.

From the The Skin Cancer Foundation Journal, Vol. 20, 2002