Dermatology and I: A Shakespearean Comedy

by Erica

2016 was a hectic year, full of long drives, plane rides, goodbyes, and nice-to-meet-yous. But somewhere between the college decisions, high school graduations, and college beginnings, was a smaller, less glamorous story. It was no boy-meets-girl tale with no meet cute, but it involved a boy (my dermatologist), a girl (me), and some not-so-cute miscommunications.

In early June at my yearly physical, my doctor noticed a spot on the back of my neck and suggested I get it checked out. “You should probably do that before college, just in case,” she said, “because once you leave, you’ll forget all about it.”

On doctor’s orders, I went to the dermatologist a couple of weeks later, and he too decided to be cautious and performed a biopsy on my neck. It was “precautionary”, he said, and it was highly unlikely that it was anything. But he just wanted to check. So after some stinging anesthesia and a removal of a chunk of my skin, he sent me away with a “Wound Care Instructions” sheet and the promise that I’d get my test results back in a couple weeks.

And so it fell to the back of my mind. Besides the uncomfortable bandage placement on my neck/shoulder and the occasional stinging pain, I forgot all about my possible plight. I drove to northern California for the Fourth of July, went to Texas for orientation, and flew to New York to spend a couple weeks with Allison. Life was busy, and the only things that were on my mind were the color of my future sheets in my dorm room and how I could mentally prepare myself to spend nearly 300 hours straight with Allison.

It was the middle of July and there the two of us were, at a zoo in New Jersey, eating homemade sandwiches on a safari-themed patio. In the middle of some drawn-out conversation on what we thought our first semester of college was going to be like, my dad called. I hadn’t been home in a couple weeks and being the responsible daughter I was, I hadn’t called my parents at all, so I picked up the phone not expecting anything much besides a “why haven’t you called? Are you dead? Are you partying?” inquisition.

My dad started off with something about college, per usual, and asked how orientation went. A few remarks about college later, he spiraled into a tangent on preparing for my future at UT and all the things I wanted to talk about on vacation. But as the academic chatter began to die down, his voice got slower and softer. “Oh by the way,” he said, “your biopsy results came back positive.”

Positive for skin cancer.

It wasn’t terribly serious or life-threatening by any means, but it was still skin cancer. Of all things to find out about this summer. I half expected to break a bone, or get arrested, or undergo some other tragic accident whilst spending time with Allison, but I hadn’t imagined at all I’d be told I had skin cancer.

For the next couple of weeks, I carried on through the incredulity of the situation, laughing to myself at how ironic it seemed to be. Before this all, whenever Allison got badly sunburned I’d chide her, relishing in the fact that I’ve never been sunburned myself. Whenever her mom told me to apply sunscreen on Allison’s back at the beach every hour so she didn’t fry like an egg, I used to boast that the sun just gave me a golden tan.

(And apparently skin cancer, too.)

My careless sun care habits came crashing down on me in the end, leaving me with yet another thing to think about during my already frenzied summer.

August first came quickly.

I headed in to the surgery center at the crack of 7:30am that morning, where the nurse gave me the necessary attire to blend in as a guest star on a medical television drama. Once I had settled in and gotten surgery-ready, the doctor came in. “This is highly unusual,” he said, looking at my records, “you’re a young girl, you have darker skin, you don’t go out into the sun often, and there is no history of skin cancer in your family. I didn’t expect this to happen.”

(Let’s say I was a little bitter that I happened to be in the small percentage of “people who you’d never think could get skin cancer but end up with it anyway” but never ended up being in the small percentage of “people accepted into Princeton”.)

“But we’ll work through this,” he continued, “and keep extracting skin from your neck until all the cancerous cells are gone.”

The nurse followed shortly after with the all-too-familiar burning anesthesia. “It’ll just be a moment,” she said as she closed the door behind her.

I laid on my un-numbed side, scrolling through my Tumblr dashboard. Soon fifteen minutes passed, then thirty, then an hour; I was getting to the end of new content on all my social medias, and I was somewhat afraid that the anesthesia would wear off before the actual surgery occurred.

Eventually I started questioning my memory. Did the surgery already happen? To be fair, I couldn’t feel anything—my entire shoulder could be missing and I wouldn’t really know. Did I black out? Knowing me, that’s not out of the question. Did I just forget it all happened?

Finally, over an hour after being given anesthetic, I heard a knock on the door. The dermatologist was back.

“Well,” he said, looking nervously at his clipboard, “this has never happened before.”


“I’m really sorry.” He thumbed at his papers a little more. ”You see, as it turns out, someone else’s test results were accidentally filed under your name and identification number.

You don’t actually have skin cancer.

I apologize again for the error.”

(I don’t remember anything he said after that.)

And so just like that, nearly three hours after trudging into the surgery center, mentally preparing myself to be sliced into, I left with a numb arm and no skin cancer—with no surgery needed.

August is now long past and the first semester of college has kept me quite preoccupied, but I still have that not-quite-fully-healed splotch of skin on the back of my neck from the biopsy, to remind me of that little filing error in the middle of my summer that made me think the sun had (perhaps too literally) stabbed me in the back.

I wear sunblock a lot more often now.