Tennessee native Marisha Dotson has endured more in her 28 years than most people do in a lifetime. Since 2014, she has had over 30 surgeries due to the devastating side-effects of squamous cell carcinoma — the second most common and deadly type of skin cancer.
In 2014, Dotson noticed what she thought was a pimple on the center of her nose. She went to student health services on campus to get it checked out, but the doctor told her it was just an infection and to put antibiotics on it. However, the spot kept growing and became so painful it felt like her entire face was on fire. That’s when he finally referred her to a dermatologist.
The dermatologist did a biopsy and a week later Dotson got the diagnosis — squamous cell carninoma, also known as SCCA.
“A few weeks later I went in for Mohs surgery, where most of my nose, bone, cartilage and tissues were removed,” Dotson told The Mighty. “I had nerve invasion and a rarely aggressive invasive form. It has been fast-growing and invasive for me, unlike how it usually behaves.”
For 16 hours, Dotson underwent surgery, and she was completely awake through it all.
“I had over 300 anesthetic shots in my face and nose, in raw bleeding tissue, and the numbing didn’t work. I felt it all. I still have nightmares about how awful that day was.”
When the surgery was over they showed Dotson a mirror, and she was her face. She had never felt more devastated in her life.
“I had decided then that it was happening, I didn’t have any control over it and I would fight with everything I was capable of. I decided to give anything I was able to give, and that meant of a lot of pain, blood, tears, emotions, skin, body parts and so much more.”
Dotson has had 30 surgeries since her first one in 2014, including a nasal reconstruction from her scalp to cover the hole that was left after the first tumor’s excision. Once that healed she did high dose radiation from June 2015 to the end of August 2015.
In October 2015, her cancer came back, and this time it had spread throughout her face. It has been on her cheek four different times, above her nose, all around the flap graft, on the left side of her face, under her nose, in her nostrils and in multiple areas on her upper lip. Doctors kept removing the tumors, but every time they did pathology would come back, saying it was still cancerous and spreading.
Dotson had skin grafts taken from her stomach to replace the skin on her face and nose, as well from between her nose, lip and upper lip. Yet the cancer kept spreading. Her ENT and nasal surgeon said they had done all they could, so she went to a maxillofacial surgeon who also did a few surgeries, however, the cancer continued to spread and she couldn’t get any clear margins.
By the summer of 2016, Dotson now had stage 4 SCCA and less than a 20 percent survival rate. Another surgery was planned but was not expected to be successful. That September they removed her upper jaw bone, left sinus bone and tissue, what was left of her nose and flap graft, what was left of the center piece that divides the nostrils, seven teeth, the roof of her mouth and hard pallet, nasal floor bone and tissue between her gums and mouth.
For Dotson, the healing process has been extremely difficult. She’s had to adjust to living with a temporary dental prosthesis that closes the gap of the roof of her mouth and nose, which she has to clean with Q-tips and saline every day. She wears a mask most of the time when she goes out because the open cavity doesn’t protect her from foreign objects. She gets horrible sinus infections that make her sick, and the nerve damage constantly makes her mouth and nose hurt.
Today, Dotson is cancer-free and living life to the fullest. “There are many things in life that we won’t have any control over,” she said of her experience. “But if we try to be better than who we were yesterday and believe we can be happy even in the face of adversity and scars, we will always have the final winning hand in life.”
Despite all of the surgeries, her continued physical pain, losing her mother at age 16 and having no contact with her father, Dotson remains positive and hopeful for her future.
“I promised myself I would not let cancer win. It took away enough already. I wouldn’t let it break my spirit or my faith in God or how I love. In fact, I love better and more openly now. Every day I wake up is an opportunity to be grateful. “
Dotson said she wants to live as normally and happily as possible, which she does by caring for her 9-year-old poodle Oreo, reading books, listening to music, hanging out with friends, volunteering at local cancer centers, spending time with her brother and much more.
She said she also wants to use her experience and education background — she graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee Knoxville with three bachelor degrees — to educate others about skin cancer and ultimately be a counselor for nonprofits focused on trauma.
Published in The Mighty