The England-born, L.A.-based author is the Chief News Correspondent for E! (All photos courtesy of the author)
Three weeks ago I was diagnosed with skin cancer.
I was minutes away from going live on air when I got the call from my doctor. I vaguely remember the conversation before hanging up, reapplying my lipstick, and walking to set to talk about Kate Middleton. It didn’t feel real. I was numb.
I don’t usually get nervous before filming, but as I waited at the side of the set for my name to be called so I could take my seat next to Giuliana Rancic, I quivered. I had enough self-awareness to understand I had just been told something significant but hadn’t yet fully processed it. As I stood there holding my notes, I started to feel scared. It wasn’t the diagnosis, but a fear that the magnitude of the situation might sink in right at the moment the camera faced me with its red light glaring. I was more petrified of screwing up my words and looking stupid in front of a room full of people than this alien thing growing on my face.
Thankfully, the segment went off without a hitch. No one suspected I had just got one of the most frightening calls of my life.
The author as a sunburnt child.
To put this into perspective: I had Basal Cell Carcinoma, now the most common form of cancer in America. It’s slow growing and rarely kills, unlike Melanoma which can be much more serious.
But still, it was the C word. Something I hoped I’d never hear in connection with my name.
I had noticed a new freckle on my forehead a year ago but ignored it. It was light and small, about the size of a chocolate chip and on first sight I thought it was a smudge of misapplied fake tanner. It was actually quite pretty. And so there it lingered, in a non-confrontational kind of way. It didn’t grow or move or want attention, it just hung out.
But a month ago the freckle started acting up. I was vacationing in the Himalayas, and as I stared into the hotel mirror rubbing sunscreen on in preparation for a mountain hike, I noticed something was different. My pretty little freckle wasn’t quite as perfect anymore. On one side, a little brown spot had appeared, spoiling its cute symmetry. As I continued applying the cream around my eyes and my nose, I wondered if I should worry, but I had a jam-packed schedule and pushed it out of my mind. I was the happiest I had ever been in my life, and traveling alone had armed me with a new kind of confidence I had never felt before.
By chance, two days after I got back to the U.S., I had a dermatologist appointment for an unrelated condition, and so I pointed out my now flawed mark. My carefree conversation with my doctor about my holiday suddenly stopped.
This is how Melanie covers up on vacation.
“That doesn’t look right at all,” she said. “We need to do a biopsy.”
So here I was a week later. Kate Middleton assignment finished. I came off air and went straight into planning mode. I needed to have two procedures, one with the dermatologist for the removal and then another, the day after, with a plastic surgeon (for the stitch up because it was on my face). It still hadn’t sunk in-I was distracted by my new list of to do items, canceling dinners, scheduling surgeries and postponing meetings. My priorities were all over the place. When my doctor told me my surgery might take six hours, my first question was, “Do you have Wi-Fi?”
Three days later, I met with the plastic surgeon. The main concern was how many layers of skin the cancer would be present in, as that would impact the size of the hole in my head. Best-case scenario: The scar would be horizontal and three times the width of the hole. But the more layers they would have to dig through, the bigger the scar. They prepared me for the worst-that I might look like Harry Potter’s older sister with a Z-shaped scar covering one side of my forehead. My biggest fear was not so much the scar. I had already picked out a new hair cut complete with cool bangs, Jane Birkin style. (As I said, my priorities were off.) Instead I was worrying about having wonky eyebrows.
“We will do everything we can to try and avoid that,” they told me. But I wasn’t reassured. I remember leaving the surgeon’s office and sitting paralyzed in my car for 20 minutes gasping for air through huge sobs. The reality had finally hit me.
I am vain and I am on air, so a big part of my career is looking the part. The cancer would be removed, hopefully (it can sometimes spread to the bones but that’s very rare). I could even cope with the scar on my forehead. But a crooked face? Maybe I should get a facelift at the same time. At least that would straighten things out.
The following five days were s–t. Every moment I would play out the worst case scenario and more. I started to obsess over other little freckles on my face; maybe they were skin cancer too. By my first procedure I had concluded my on air career would be over. I would be left with scars all over my face, I wouldn’t have much of a nose left (that’s one of the hardest places to remove Basal Cell, I learned) and as a result I would lose all my confidence and never get a boyfriend. I was 40 and single with skin cancer. And yes, it was making me ever so slightly neurotic.
On the day of the surgery, I packed a bag with my laptop, two books, fresh podcasts and anything I could think of to distract myself from the six hours of waiting as they performed an excavation on my face.
The author today.
The end result: I do not bear a striking resemblance to a famous wizard. My eyebrows are level. I was a bit swollen and have a one-inch scar on top of my forehead. The cancer was only in the first layer. I was exceptionally lucky. I caught it early. I didn’t have to endure chemotherapy, like millions of other people with more aggressive types of cancer. And by the end of my procedure, I hadn’t even managed to finish one chapter of my book. Although I did have an agonizing wait as they tested that first layer, but it was just an hour of my life and I will be okay.
I am clear, and I am so, so grateful.
The bad: I have a 40 percent chance of getting another Basal Cell Carcinoma somewhere else on my body. Yes, maybe even my nose.
I can never leave my house without sunscreen again. And I’m going to have to start spending money on floppy hats rather than lovely dresses. I will now have to have regular checks, and because I burnt my face when I was a kid, I will be more self-obsessed than ever about my looks. And I will probably have some sleepless nights worrying about tiny harmless freckles.
But I couldn’t have been luckier. Skin cancer can be deadly and is rising at an alarming rate. Current estimates say one in five of us will get it in our lifetime. Over the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined. Get your moles checked often. If something looks unusual, do not wait. I have not sunbathed since I was a child, thanks to vanity and fear of wrinkles. While my friends would spend holidays lying out in the sun, I covered up and stayed inside. And yet the damage has already been done. There is nothing I can do about it except try and delay more skin cancer from developing.
Basal Cell Carcinoma, when caught early, is a good cancer. If ever there is such a thing. I am healing. My scar is my new good luck charm. Reminding me, every time I look in the mirror, of how fortuitous I was. Although I might get a new haircut anyway-Just because I can.
For more information about signs, symptoms and treatment of Basal Cell Carcinoma, please go to www.cancer.org.
Melanie Bromley was the European Bureau chief for Us Weekly from 2003, before moving to Los Angeles to become the West Coast bureau chief in 2007. In 2012, she joined E! and became the Chief News Correspondent where she regularly report on air for E! News, Live from E! And E! News Specials. In addition, she is the unofficial royal correspondent — partially just because she’s British and has a fascination with Kate Middleton.