Sun-Loving Reporter Finds Skin Cancer

N E W   Y O R K, July 18, 2001 -- Television reporter Michelle Charlesworth was working on a news story when she got a lead she wasn't looking for — her own close-up look at skin cancer.

"I thought it was a pore or something but it turns out it was cancer," said Charlesworth, a 31-year-old anchor/reporter for WABC-TV in New York.

The discovery came in February, when she was in the office of dermatologist Dr. Bruce Katz, working on a story about liposuction. She would have ignored the mark on her face without going to a dermatologist, if not for the assignment.

"I only ended up in a doctor's office as a reporter — not as a patient," Charlesworth said. A photographer she was with asked Katz about a bump on his face, and she then asked about the mark on her own. Katz got his magnifying glass out and said, "I wanted to ask you about that." Thank God she did, Charlesworth said later.

"A biopsy came back two days later — basal cell carcinoma," Charlesworth said.

The problem was that doctors wouldn't know how much the cancer had spread until the skin was removed and tested.

Years of Tanning

"So this was not only a medical problem, it was also cosmetic," Charlesworth said. When she looked back to see how it happened, it wasn't hard to figure.

Every summer, as a child, she was out in the sun, soaking in rays. In her high school prom picture, her skin was also gloriously tan. And even the summer before she found out she had cancer, Charlesworth had the same bronzed look.

"I always thought that the biggest risk was premature aging," she said. "I never thought the sun would lead to surgery — much less 27 stitches."

The morning she was going in for the procedure to remove the cancer, Charlesworth was terrified.

"What they told me is that they're going to have to cut it out and then they might have to go up here and get more and flip it down. So then I am thinking it is this big [several inches long]. And I don't want something like that on my head," Charlesworth said.

Wide Awake in Surgery

The doctor explained that the surgical team would cut around the area, leaving a margin of normal skin, and check it under a microscope.

"If it's clear, that's the end of your day," the doctor told her.

But as it turned out, it wasn't. It took two hours for all the skin cancer to be removed, and Charlesworth was awake with only a local anesthetic. Her doctor used Mohs surgery, which errs on the side of caution. Under the procedure, the smallest possible area is cut, dyed, and then frozen for 45 minutes.

Then the doctors examine where the cancer cells have spread under a microscope. If they have to go back in, clear areas are left alone and affected areas are cut further.

With her mother hiding in the hallway, Charlesworth went through what ended up being eight hours of surgery.

"But because he had tried to save as much of my face as possible and it turned out that the cancer had spread, [the doctor] had to go in three separate times to get everything," Charlesworth said.

Worried About Her Smile

Her worst fear: that it would be noticeable.

"If it screws up your smile … you know … if it changes the way you look," Charlesworth said.

When every margin around the cancer was finally cleared, plastic surgeon Michael Bruck, who had been watching every single cut, stepped in with a way to hide the scar.

"What I'm hoping that we'll be able to do since it lies in the fold, is to, in a sense, almost what you would do in a face lift, but in reverse," Bruck said. "Instead of moving the tissues that way, moving the tissues this way. And then try to have a final scar that lies in the fold."

Because the hole in her face was nowhere near Charlesworth's laugh line, moving it was tough. But Dr. Bruck worked for another three hours through three levels of tissue and 27 stitches to do what Charlesworth had thought would be impossible.

A week after surgery, the scar was beginning to be less noticeable. Doctors promised the swelling and the scarring would go eventually go away. Within three weeks, Charlesworth was back on the air.