August 2023

Please note this blog contains graphic images. 

Life can be funny. I suffered from depression for years and the words that helped me most were from the autobiography of a cancer survivor describing how fear was a priceless education. He concluded by detailing an email from another cancer patient - leading him to this new school of thought: “You don’t know it yet, but we’re the lucky ones”, it read.  

This extract meant so much to me, around 2004/2005, I put it on the wall beside my bed. It was my light in the darkness and despite moving from my family home in 2010, it remains on that wall to this day. But what I didn’t know was, for almost all those years, I had cancer myself. 

I’m an actor and as I started my career, I felt I looked pale on camera, so in 2005 I used tanning beds for two to three months. After noticing damaged skin on my hip, I stopped immediately and had no further issues in that area. However, I soon discovered a flat white, scar-like area of skin that was waxy in colour on my right cheek, just below my eye.

This, of course, is one of the 5 main signs of basal cell carcinoma but as I was young and still suffering from acne, I assumed it was an acne scar. And I believed this for 13 years before a few bits of acne within the scar area didn’t heal and with the marks affecting both my appearance and my career, I went to my GP. As 13 years had passed and I had never noticed the tumour grow, I didn’t believe the BCC diagnosis I received and sought second opinions before committing to a biopsy, which confirmed the dermatologists were correct. 

Before James' second surgery

Unfortunately, the nine month waiting period for Mohs surgery to remove my tumour ended up extending into the Covid-19 pandemic, so it was almost 15 months after my biopsy when I finally had my operation. As the scarring from the procedure would likely affect my career, I was lucky to be offered a plastic surgeon to close my wound. However, this meant two procedures on separate days and the unusual experience of having to spend a day in a hotel with a large open wound on my face. I had temporarily moved back to my parents’ during the pandemic, so I travelled to London for the operations alone. Fortunately, I had a couple of very good friends who helped me, one of whom travelled to my hotel to bring me food after my second operation, when I couldn’t move due to the wound bleeding. 

  After surgery

Two weeks later it was time to remove the dressing and look at my scar for the first time. This was one of the scariest experiences of my life. But with hindsight, it’s not something that should be feared. What I saw that day was just the beginning of an 18–24-month healing process. If you’re in a similar situation and fear how a scar will affect you, don’t. Just wait, do what your doctor advises regarding wound care, and worry about it in two years once you know how it will look - if you can still see it.  

James' scar in December 2020

“You don’t know it yet, but we’re the lucky ones.” We all learn what this means. I already had when I pinned that extract on my wall, as I added four words of my own at the bottom of the page. ‘From fear, comes freedom’.  


Mid 2022 & October 2022

Facing a disease that threatens your career or even your life, puts everything into perspective. You quickly realise how insignificant most problems are and what really matters. When thinking about what you could lose, you realise what you have and how lucky you are. Especially those of us in the western world. As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, I’m acutely aware how lucky I am to only be describing the viewing of a skin cancer scar for the first time, as one of the scariest experiences of my life. So many have been and will be through much worse, be that cancer, other diseases, war, poverty, or something else. I’ll never forget my GP’s intelligently tactful words when he told me I had BCC. “Don’t worry, it’s the best possible form of cancer to get. 99% of the time they cut it out and it’s gone.” 

In many ways; I really am one of the lucky ones.

After surgery

James Doherty

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