At one point in her life, Heather Haux wanted to die.At just 38 years old, the Southampton resident was receiving a rigorous chemotherapy treatment from SUNY Upstate Medical University Hospital for skin cancer, a disease that had already plagued her for seven years.
The chemo was so hard on Ms. Haux’s body that it damaged her respiratory system and kept her out of work for more than a month.
“I thought the chemo was going to kill me,” she said. “I kind of wanted to [die].”
That was in 2006. Today, at the age of 46, Ms. Haux is recovered from the effects of the crippling treatment, but has unfortunately had to continue to undergo other procedures and surgeries for more skin cancer—more than 40, to be exact.
Doctors suspect Ms. Haux has some kind of genetic mutation that makes her body so susceptible to skin cancer. Since her first diagnosis in 1999, she has had melanoma twice and other types of skin cancers as well. She has undergone a total of three courses of chemotherapy treatment and even had a pancreatic cancer scare a few years ago.
According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, as well as the most preventable, although melanoma can be fatal if it spreads to other parts of the body. Ms. Haux said her experience has encouraged her to speak publicly about how important it is to be aware of the risks, especially with summer right around the corner. She aims to help people so they don’t find themselves in her shoes.
“I’ve had literally dozens and dozens of microscopic surgeries to remove cancerous lesions from my skin,” she said. “No part of me has been unscathed.”
Born and raised in Syracuse, Ms. Haux said her parents were always diligent about making sure she had on proper protection when going out in the sun. As she got older, she took it upon herself to do that. So when she discovered a bleeding spot on her arm in 1999, she was shocked upon learning that it was melanoma.
From that year on, skin cancer became a regularity in Ms. Haux’s life. Every few months she would discover a new lesion, another spot that was cancerous. At one point, her face was so bandaged and scarred from surgeries that people didn’t even recognize her.
“I used to joke about being under construction,” she said. “It looked like someone took a blowtorch to my face.”
Her supervisor at Southampton High School, where she was and still is a special education teacher, would tell her to go home because she was hard to look at. Her condition prevented her from ever being an organ and blood donor, as well as qualifying for any supplemental life insurances. She never married. The cancer took over Ms. Haux’s life, as if it had implanted itself into her skin permanently.
But she refused to allow it to conquer her. After her rough chemotherapy treatment, Ms. Haux signed up for and walked the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco. She took it upon herself to take care of her dying mother, even during her pancreatic cancer scare. She also took care of herself instead of giving into the help many people offered her.
Things took a turn for the better, though, around 10 years ago. That’s when Ms. Haux began seeing Dr. Kenneth Mark, a skin cancer and cosmetic dermatology expert with an office in Southampton. Dr. Mark has performed many surgeries and procedures on Ms. Haux, but with his background and expertise, the procedures left little to no scarring at all.
Dr. Mark said Ms. Haux’s case is unique. Eighty-five percent of her cancer has been on the right side of her body, as opposed to the left, which is where skin cancer usually occurs. Other factors are unusual, too. “Her situation is unique in the sense that she’s had an incredible amount of skin cancers for her age,” he said. But “it is certainly more common [now] for young people to have skin cancer.”
Dr. Mark often uses a special treatment on Ms. Haux called Mohs surgery to remove her cancerous lesions. Mohs surgery takes place right in the office with the patient under low anesthesia, and it involves removing tiny layers of skin and examining them under a microscope until the cancer is found. Dr. Mark said it has the highest cure rate of any skin cancer procedure. “It really lets you conserve the maximum amount of normal, healthy tissue,” he said.
Over the years, Ms. Haux has developed such a keen eye for noticing cancerous spots on her body that she even discovered melanoma on her sister. Two years ago, Ms. Haux urged Holly Haux Jeffers to get a suspicious mark on her back checked out, and when she did, she learned that she had caught the cancer just in time.
“I wasn’t concerned until Heather told me to check it out,” said Ms. Haux Jeffers, 45, of Burlington, Vermont. “You hear that word, and there’s an instant panic.”
Although skin cancer has become more common, there are simple ways to prevent it. Christina Faber, senior director of health systems for the Eastern Division of the American Cancer Society, said the biggest step for people to take is always wearing a shirt, hat, sunglasses and sunblock when going outside. Dr. Mark instructs people to avoid burning, avoid the intense midday sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and get routine checks by a dermatologist.
As for Ms. Haux, her cancer is still present. In the last year alone, she has had about six procedures to remove more lesions. And even though she predicts that pancreatic, breast and colon cancers could creep up on her in the future, as they are very prevalent in her family, she remains optimistic.
“You have to be in tune with your own body,” she said. “You have to be willing to get bad news. You have to care enough about yourself to go get tested.
“I don’t worry about death,” she added. “I worry about how I’m living.”