When Marisha Dotson looks in the mirror today, she struggles to recognize the face looking back at her. After years of skin cancer surgeries she looks like a completely different person.
Dotson's life dramatically changed four years ago when an annoying pimple turned out to be an aggressive skin cancer. Numerous surgeries on her face and mouth have transformed her appearance. This year, the Knoxville, Tennessee resident has undergone 12 biopsies and had two more cancerous spots removed.
“A lot of people think, ‘It is just skin cancer’ and it is not going to happen to them,” Dotson, 29, told TODAY. “Awareness is important. A lot of people don’t know about skin cancer.”
When a pimple turns out to be more.
After a strenuous spring semester at The University of Tennessee in 2014, taking 19 credits and working three jobs, Dotson was sick a lot. She wasn't surprised when a tiny pink dot appeared on her nose. She thought stress probably caused the pimple. Though after a few days, the pink spot didn’t go away. Instead, it 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 said. “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, now 29, worried it 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. 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.'”
In January 2018, doctors found two more cancerous spots on the right side of her nose; the original cancer was on her left side.
"It wasn’t widespread. It was a little bitty tiny spot," she said.
But she faced some complications during recovery.
"My body still struggles with infections because I have open sinus cavities," Dotson said.
Undergoing cancer treatment for four years has transformed her entire body: Dotson gained about 100 pounds because the radiation destroyed her pituitary gland. Her ankles and legs swell painfully and she experiences neuropathy (weakness or numbness from nerve damage).
“Sometimes after cancer, our bodies don’t do the things they should be doing,” she explained. “Cancer changed so much about my body.”
By sharing her story, Dotson hopes 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.
“I don’t want people to think staying outside in the sun all day is OK. I think people should be more aware about UV damage,” she said.
Dotson’s also speaking out to bolster her self-confidence. After undergoing more than 30 different procedures that changed the face she knew for decades, 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 her ongoing medical expenses. People interested in helping can do so here.