A dermatologist dismissed it as a blocked oil gland but the diagnosis left Alison O'Neill in "absolute shock."
Cancer is a devastating and challenging illness that can take any form. For a 49-year-old from Arizona, it started with a tiny mark on her cheek.
Alison O'Neill told Good Morning America that it "looked like anything all of us have had in our life." The mark was like any other blemish or acne on people's faces. However, for O'Neill, this "tiny little mark on my right cheek" had the worst possible outcome. She went to a dermatologist to get it checked out and was told that it was a clogged oil gland. O'Neill thought she didn't have to worry about it but it started to grow larger over time.
Woman shares warning after mark on face diagnosed as cancerous tumor two years later https://t.co/wMsTaAwmrO O'Neill(NEW YORK) -- An Arizona woman is opening up about her five-year cancer battle to help inspire other women to take charge of their health.— KTBB Radio (@KTBBRadio) November 17, 2022
Alison O'Neill, now 4...
When it started bothering her more, O'Neill decided to have it removed from her face. She explained, "At that point, I was just thinking cosmetic. I just thought I'd like it removed because it was pretty prominent on my right cheek, but small." However, she never thought in her "wildest dreams" that this small mark would turn out to be cancer. O'Neill was diagnosed with angiosarcoma after additional testing at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. According to NCI, it "is a rare cancer that develops in the inner lining of blood vessels and lymph vessels." It can occur anywhere on the body but particularly on the skin, breast, liver, and spleen.
She was in "absolute shock" after her diagnosis, O'Neill shared. "Because we’re walking through life, living your life, busy, and then you get a phone call that turns it upside down," she explained. Her immediate thought after learning that she has cancer was that she is going to die. O'Neill met with Dr. Brittany Howard, chair of the division of facial plastic surgery at Mayo Clinic Arizona, after receiving her diagnosis. Howard conducted the in-office treatment to remove the tumor from her face.
Alison O'Neill knew something was wrong when a bump on her right cheek wouldn't go away. She was told it was a clogged oil gland, but a biopsy at @MayoClinic revealed #angiosarcoma, an aggressive, potentially deadly cancer of the blood vessels. https://t.co/ZiIIgVmnU6— Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center (@MayoCancerCare) September 16, 2022
Dr. Howard said that when it comes to angiosarcoma, it "is very difficult to see the extent of it when you look at someone's skin." She described it as seeing the "tip of the iceberg." Howard stated that in order to ensure that all of the cancer was removed, she had to remove a big portion of O'Neill's right cheek. Following six weeks of radiotherapy, O'Neill needed more surgery to help reconstruct her face. She required an extreme form of "facelift" complete with 100 stitches from under her eye to her collarbone.
O'Neill said that the "devastation and destruction" she saw happening to her face is the opposite of all self-care methods. "It's hard to come to terms with allowing that to happen," she added. She wanted to stop the invasive surgery but Dr. Howard told her that "the human body has amazing abilities to heal." She said, "I have thought of that every single day, that this amazing body has amazing abilities to heal."
According to Dr. Howard, another aspect of O'Neill's reconstructive journey has been the utilization of technologies such as lasers and broadband light therapy to return her skin to its original tone. She said that it is very common for cancer patients to worry about their scars and feel bad about complaining. However, she said that using treatments to improve the appearance of surgery marks is equally important because "we shouldn't look in the mirror and see a cancer victim."
O'Neill has been declared cancer-free and is now in remission. Dr. Howard describes her as "an amazing survivor." O'Neill believes that her experience may inspire other women to take care of their health and to speak out if they realize something is wrong with their bodies. "You have to advocate for yourself when going through any medical journey. I describe the last two years as being like crawling through mud. It is incredibly difficult to regain your health and you have to work really, really hard at it," she said.
Cover Image Source: YouTube | Mayo Clinic