A support worker who has never sunbathed but fears losing most of her face to skin cancer after having aggressive tumors removed under her eye and cheek says her husband still insists that she is “absolutely beautiful”. Keen to point out that ‘not just sun worshippers’ can get skin cancer, Debbie Lindley, 49, was seeing a GP about a rash on her right foot in March 2020, when she told the passing a “pearl-like” mass that her daughter had noticed under her right eye – which she was instructed to have tested.
Stunned when two weeks later she was told she had basal cell carcinoma (BCC), a cancer that starts in the cells lining the bottom of the epidermis or skin, she was booked to have it removed a few months later in June at Harrogate District Hospital in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.
Unfortunately, in May 2022 another tumor was discovered on her right cheek and Debbie, who lives near Knaresborough with her carpenter husband Graham Voakes, 49, and their daughter Megan, 17, underwent further surgery, saying: “The operation took nine minutes and they removed 3cm of skin from my cheek. It’s a complete mess.
She added: “I look really weird but my husband says I’m still absolutely gorgeous. My husband is really sick to his stomach, he couldn’t even be in the same room as me during my c-section .
“But even though I looked the way I did, he greeted me with a big kiss when I walked out of surgery, which was lovely. There was nothing that made me happier than seeing him. He told me he was proud of me and that I didn’t even look that bad.
Unfortunately, Debbie has been warned that the latest 3cm lesion may not be the last.
She said: “I was told there was a 50 per cent chance it would come back and I know I will have to keep losing more and more parts of my face. I need to hope the scars will heal, but I’ll keep going.
“I have been married for 19 years and losing part of my face really affected my confidence. Especially after the second operation, I was afraid that my husband would not look at me anymore.
“I told him how worried I was about how the scars would heal, but he was my rock. He kept reassuring me that he would still love me if I had scars.”
Despite her shock at having developed skin cancer without deliberately exposing herself to the sun, Debbie realizes that she was very lucky that her tumor was spotted early.
She said: ‘I had no signs at all. I never would have even known to ask my GP if my daughter hadn’t spotted the little pearl, which looked like a spot under my eye. I went to the doctor because of a rash I had on my foot, which turned out to be an allergy, and told him that my daughter had noticed the pearl. I wasn’t worried at all, but he said they would investigate and made an appointment for me two weeks later.
Confirmed that she had BCC, one of the most common forms of skin cancer which accounts for 75 out of 100 cases in the UK, according to the NHS, the diagnosis took Debbie completely by surprise.
She said: ‘I thought it was just a spot or maybe a cyst at worst and I never expected cancer. It was really shocking to find out.
“I had never sunbathed in my life and I had never chased after the sun, but I had skin cancer. I did not understand how it was possible.
“I feel like it was unlucky for me to get him. I went to Harrogate District Hospital and when they told me they needed to operate I was just petrified.
Although the 20-minute operation was a success, after being warned that the cancer could come back and become aggressive, Debbie still feared that her face could possibly be eaten away.
She said: ‘Apparently this cancer is not normally fatal but it grows extremely quickly and can be incredibly disfiguring and I felt so blessed that we at least caught it when we did. I was really worried about how I would look after the surgery – if I was recognizable to my daughter and my husband.
Subsequently obsessed with finding tumors on her skin, Debbie’s face remained clear for nearly two years.
She said: “I tried to move on with my life after that. I think I almost forgot that I had cancer sometimes, because I felt good.
“For the next two years I kept trying to live my life to the fullest. It was a strange time for everyone with the pandemic so there was no time to really focus on things like that.
“But it affected me every day, because I didn’t want it to come back. I checked my skin every morning and constantly checked my face.
And in March 2022, alarm bells started ringing for Debbie when she noticed a “pimple” on her right cheek that became increasingly painful.
Following an online consultation, she was asked to see a dermatologist and, after further testing, the cancer was confirmed to have returned.
She said: ‘It was quite different this time because the doctors didn’t just suggest I have surgery, they said I needed it urgently. They said the cancer was growing fast and if I didn’t have it removed as soon as possible it could disfigure my face and make it more difficult for them to operate.
“The thought of needing a skin graft was the most terrifying part. I went to panic stations at this point and spent days crying and crying. I had horrible panic attacks and even though the staff were amazing I was so scared.
Debbie underwent nine-minute surgery to remove the 3cm lesion in May 2022, which she says left her in a “complete mess”. So, it was a huge comfort when Graham was waiting for her when she came out of surgery and gave her a big hug and a kiss.
While the doctors think they’ve removed all the cancerous skin again, Debbie knows it’s not clear yet, as there’s still a 50/50 chance another tumor will form. Now she is keen to stress the importance of people checking their faces for lesions, as she says early detection of any cancer can mean the difference between ‘life and death’ or ‘losing face completely’.
She said: “In some ways I feel so unlucky, but I also feel so lucky to have spotted these two tumors early, before they completely ruined my face. If you notice anything unusual or feel like something is wrong, just go get checked out.
“Talk to your GP. It could mean the difference between life and death, or your face could be saved or disfigured.”