Warning: contains graphic images and medical content of the everyday lives of people living with the effects of Head and Neck Cancer treatment.
I want everyone to know that BCCs can kill you if untreated. There is no such thing as "safe BCC".
"Twelve months after my BCC removal surgery in December 2020 on the Sunshine Coast, I returned for a check-up. During the procedure I asked the head surgeon, who had operated on me, if he had been busy since I last saw him. He said, 'Pete, I have taken 40 part or total ears off in the last year!' Mine happened to be one of them."
Pete, a retired security guard, recently became the proud owner of a prosthetic ear following the removal of a basal cell carcinoma (BCC), the most common type of skin cancer in Australia.
Pete and his wife Nicky are passionate about sharing their story to help others who may be going through a similar experience, and to stress how important it is for people to have regular skin checks.
Originally from Nelson in New Zealand, Pete, Nicky and their two daughters moved to the Sunshine Coast in September 2006.
" As kids you were deemed to be living a healthy lifestyle if you were tanned during the summer months. You'd go to the beach on the first day of holidays and arrive home scarlet - that was a successful day."
Pete first noticed a pale patch of skin in front of his right ear but ignored it for years, 17 years to be exact.
In 2019 a dermatologist thought it was "probably a BCC, but it's not going to kill you." With that false hope, Pete left it longer.
When Pete's right ear began to detach at the ear-lobe, he had to admit to Nicky and the girls that he "might be in a bit of trouble."
They had been at me for ages to do something about it, the only one who didn't want to was me. It's the old male denial, I suppose. I was working 90-hour weeks at the time and just didn't want to know about it."
Two biopsies, a diagnosis and a 15-hour operation
Pete went to a new GP and after two biopsies the results came back: BCC which had spread to Pete's right ear canal and towards his throat.
Too advanced for radiation treatment, Pete was sent to a dermatologist at Nambour Hospital who took one look and told him if he didn't do something ASAP or it would, in fact, kill him.
"In the back of my mind, I was still thinking it's just a BCC, it won't kill me. I'll just put up with my ear falling off. But Nicky was very concerned, so I thought, Ok, I had better step up to the plate. "
The ball started to roll very quickly once Pete was diagnosed and not long after he went into the newly opened Sunshine Coast University Hospital (SCUH) in early December 2020 for what was meant to be a 2.5-hour procedure that in fact took 15 hours. The operation was carried out by a team of surgeons, anaesthetists, and nurses, about 23 in total.
"The surgeons took a flap out of my left thigh. It contained arteries and veins to be reconnected and ended up looking like an elongated white doughnut. I couldn't bear to look at myself for days.
The first morning after surgery, a group of the surgery team came in and wanted to know if I could raise my right eyebrow, there is a large nerve that runs down the front of the ear, this was encased in BCC cells which had to be removed during the surgery. Some damage had occurred, so when I was able to raise my eyebrow there was a lot of clapping, the nerve had rebooted.”
Adjusting to a new normal
“You’re asked if you have any questions before surgery takes place. Apart from how long I would be in hospital, (six days), you really don't know what to ask because you don't know the outcome and how much it is going to change you.
"A lot of things we didn't ask became clear once I came out of anaesthetic. When I finally found the courage to look at myself in the mirror, I thought what have I done? How can I ever look semi-normal again? Do I have to buy a balaclava so I can walk around in public?
"It would have been good to have received more information about my procedure and what I might look like afterwards. It's a strange feeling to know part of your body has been removed. Once discharged from SCUH, I became very withdrawn and found myself not wanting to leave the house. I wish I had been offered some sort of counselling, it would have made a huge difference."
Celebrating a Happy New Ear
"Prior to the initial surgery I was asked if I wanted to have an ear canal, which I did, this would enable me to hear with my right ear. Several more surgeries took place, one to re-line the ear canal with a split skin graft. This was taken from the inside of my right bicep, and, as I wanted to have a prosthetic ear, implants were screwed into my skull where the prosthetic ear would be attached.
"The surgical team at SCUH suggested I contact Sophie Fleming, an Anaplastologist who specialises in facial prosthetics. After meeting Sophie she took moulds of the right ear area including the ear canal, and the shape of my left ear. The ear itself is made of silicone. The life of a prosthetic ear can be three years, depending on how often you wear it. I only wear mine if we are going out for a meal or the like. The three implants in my skull have magnetic tips and when the prosthetic ear is fitted, there is a "clunk" like closing a car door, so you know it is attached.
"My prosthetic ear cost $6000 and we were extremely fortunate to have a special fund at a hospital cover the cost. I have since learned that there is no government funding for facial prosthetics in Australia which is unbelievable.
"Once I was the proud owner of my new ear, I decided to have the flap area, still glaringly white, tattooed, to match the colour of my face and neck and I was put in contact with Nicole from Pro Cosmetic Tattoo in Clayfield, Brisbane. Like Sophie, Nicole used to work in special effects in the film industry. She also creates new nipples for breast cancer patients. My tattoo took about 1.5 hours and has a mixture of 22 colours. The bonus was there was no pain or discomfort as the area I was having tattooed has no sensation.
"When all my procedures were finished, Nicky and the girls arranged Happy New Ear dinner party! I couldn't have gone through this incredible journey without Nicky and the girls, they have been my rock. Nicky has no nursing experience and was thrown in the deep end with post-surgery maintenance.
"We return to SCUH every six months for check-ups. Nicky has the job of plucking hairs from my ear flap, as it used to be part of my left thigh so produces hairs on a regular basis. Now when I go outdoors, I always apply sun block, something that was not around in my younger years, and wear a wide-brimmed hat.
"Many people are told BCCs are not that dangerous. But if they reach your skull or your brain there is absolutely nothing medically that can be done. My advice to everyone is to get a skin check every six months and treatment if required: there is no such thing as a 'safe BCC'."
Thank you Pete and Nicky for sharing your story.
To find out more about Skin Cancer of the Head and Neck click here.
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