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After a strenuous spring semester in 2014, taking 19 credits and working three jobs, Marisha Dotson felt sick often. She wasn't too surprised when a tiny pink dot appeared on her nose. She thought stress probably caused the pimple. After a few days, the pink spot didn’t go away but instead started growing.
Was it a cystic pimple? She visited the campus health clinic — just to be safe.
“Pimples usually don’t get that big,” she told TODAY. “I was freaking out about it.”
The doctor gave her antibiotics to treat what he thought was an infection. But the blemish didn’t shrink.
“Every day it was increasing in size,” she said. “The pimple had grown to the size of a quarter in four weeks.”
Dotson, 28, worried the blemish might be something worse. A biopsy confirmed Dotson’s fears — she had squamous cell carcinoma, a common type of skin cancer. And, it was growing at an alarming pace.
“I was blindsided by it,” she said. “One minute I am fine. The next, I have this huge growth.”
To treat it, surgeons removed her septum and 2/3 of the cartilage in her nose, leaving a large opening on her face. In another procedure, doctors used skin from her forehead and scalp to reconstruct her nose, which was a long, disfiguring process. After she finally healed, Dotson started radiation, which didn’t seem to make anything better.
“It was intense. I got really, really sick and it burned my face to pieces,” she said.
'It kept coming back'
Throughout her experience, Dotson took pictures to record how her face changed. The pictures helped her see if any new possible cancerous growths appeared, but they also assisted her as she grappled with how cancer changed her looks.
“People stare at you. And sometimes I look at old photos of myself and I get sad. I wish I could look like that,” she said. “But, these scars show how much I wanted to live.”
She finished radiation in August 2015. Several months later doctors found more cancer under her eye, beside her nose, and on her top lip and had to remove those tumors. Then in August 2016, doctors found that the cancer spread into her mouth.
“It kept coming back,” she said. “It had metastasized not only into the oral cavity but all the way into the left side of my upper jaw. It was in my teeth and hard pallet."
In September 2016, doctors removed her upper jaw, teeth, and hard pallet.
“I have a dental mouth piece … It is the only way I can talk and without it I have a huge open cavern,” she said. “I had to re-learn how to talk. I still have trouble saying s and r and t.”
While Dotson sometimes feels overwhelmed by her three-year battle and recovery from cancer, she felt it was important to raise awareness about skin cancer. People often think she got cancer from tanning, but she's never tanned. Or they think that cancer can’t happen to them or if it does they won’t die from it.
“Awareness is important. A lot of people don’t know about skin cancer,” she said.
Dotson’s also speaking out to bolster her self-confidence. After undergoing 30 different procedures that changed the face she knew for 25 years, she’s learning to accept how she looks now.
“I want the life I had before cancer but that is never going to happen. I am a different person,” she said. “I have no control over my body but I can still keep my spirit. I can fight it.”
Dotson hopes her experiences help others.
“You can go through this and figure out a way to be happy,” she said. “I am so happy to be alive and I don’t want to waste any moment of it. I try to inspire others. It is OK to feel what you feel. You are strong enough to make it through it.”
Dotson's raising money to cover some of her medical expenses. People interested in helping can do so here.