Sebastopol dermatologist learns from her experience and passes it on

Cynthia Bailey had just returned from vacation in 2013 when she discovered a lump in her breast. A health-conscious, 55-year-old dermatologist from Sebastopol, Dr. Bailey received annual mammograms and conducted monthly self-exams like clockwork. But because she and her husband celebrated their 30th anniversary with a European cruise, she was a few weeks behind her usual routine. Then one night, back at home in her bath, Dr. Bailey found a tiny, tender, hard bump in her breast, right near a rib, and thought, “Holy moly…”

She scheduled her mammogram, which she was due for but not past due, and read the results with the technician. A subsequent MRI and a biopsy revealed the awful truth: Dr. Bailey had a high-grade, triple-negative tumor in each breast. It turns out she was a BRCA mutation carrier, a genetic misfortune linked to increased risk of cancer, likely inherited from her mother’s mother, a nurse in World War I.

“It was shocking,” she said. “Not only was it, ‘Well, happy birthday, Cynthia Bailey, you have two cancers and you don’t know how bad it is but it’s the worst breast cancer on the planet, you need chemo because surgery won’t save you, and you have a mutation so you need to worry about passing it to your children. I was a wreck.”

In order to fight the cancer Dr. Bailey quit working so that she could sustain the highest possible doses of multiple chemo drugs. But rather than “sit on the couch eating saltines and crying,” she followed the advice of Dr. Amy Shaw at St. Joseph Health, who told her to walk 40 minutes a day to boost her survival statistics and control her weight. She also signed up for complementary cancer support services like acupuncture and massage with Sutter Health, started doing yoga two or three times a week, and began walking every day with friends after setting up a calendar on CaringBridge.org.

“We have really good support in Sonoma County for cancer patients,” she said. “I’d always worked a lot, to the detriment of the balance in my life. And I taught myself basically how to have better balance.” To this day Dr. Bailey continues to do daily naps and meditation, eat well and avoid stress as much as possible. As a result, she never missed any chemo and the treatment killed all the cancer, despite her 10 percent success prognosis. She’s currently writing a book about thriving after cancer.

“When you face death—I had four months of chemo and didn’t know if it was working,” she said, “so I had four months to contemplate, ‘Am I going to be dead shortly?’ I had an epiphany in front of my oven, which always makes me angry because it’s very difficult to set, it’s an odd size, I can’t easily replace it. And one day I was trying to light that oven, and I was about to start having in my mind the grumbling I always have, and I realized, if I die, this problem dies with me. I made this problem up. And that helped me release the clinging and rumination on all the little negative rants that I could have about any number of things. I realized that those are all just made up. And if I die they all go away, so therefore they’re not real.”

Her cancer experience also influenced her medical practice on a more tangible level. The skin of patients undergoing chemotherapy is very fragile—if it breaks down patients can get an infection, then if their doctor prescribes antibiotics, they’re prone to yeast infections, which starts a spiral of side effects and sickness. So Dr. Bailey created a chemotherapy skin care kit, while she was still undergoing chemo treatment.

“It’s your biggest organ and it’s out in public, touching shopping carts and elevator buttons and the ink pen at the CVS pharmacy when you pick up a prescription,” she said. “I had time on my hands so I experimented and developed really good skin care routines. When you’re a chemo patient they teach you a lot of stuff but they weren’t really teaching patients how to avoid skin infection and how to take good care of their skin so the barrier doesn’t break down, creating what we call a ‘portal of entry’ for infection.”

Because a patient’s immune system is compromised during chemo, it becomes crucial to support skin’s power to protect against exposure to germs, chemicals and other harmful elements. Skin and nails can also become drier, discolored, and more sun sensitive. Part of Dr. Bailey’s daily skin care routine for chemo patients includes using only gentle cleansers and hypoallergenic products, with warm (not hot) water, deeply hydrating moisturizers, and a broad-spectrum sunscreen.

Dr. Bailey has been treating patients for various dermatological conditions from her medical office in Sebastopol since 1991, but says she sees a lot of skin cancer. In fact, the National Cancer Institute ranks Sonoma County as having the sixth highest incidence rate for melanoma in the state, at nearly double the national average. Everyone Dr. Bailey treats hears about sun avoidance and the identification of skin cancer on self-exams. Her patients leave with a lot of information to empower themselves with taking care of complexion issues and keeping their skin in good shape.

For most of us, learning how to start caring for skin can seem like a daunting task. Searching for credible information online mainly yields marketing copy, and learning about skin care from advertisers means we’re constantly chasing the next ‘it’ product. Dr. Bailey suggests first figuring out what your priorities are—whether it’s budgetary constraints, wanting all-natural products or the most powerful cosmeceuticals, or addressing a skin care problem that’s really causing you to suffer.

She believes everybody needs sun protection, and a full skin exam by a dermatologist to help people understand what their skin health focus in life should be. Dr. Bailey also created a website with a near-encyclopedic database of basic skin care information, a health and beauty blog that includes her journey with cancer, and a comprehensive advice section on everything from keratosis pilaris and chapped lips to crusty age spots, assorted kinds of acne and anti-aging concerns.

“Honestly my medical practice has been full for many years,” she said. “I made the website because I love to teach, and I already taught my patients everything because I’ve been seeing them for years! I’m trying to give basic information so that people can look at skin care from a completely different perspective. You need to understand your skin, and then understand what the options are, and then go pick the product according to your priorities.”

Dr. Bailey began her medical practice in Sonoma County 25 years ago with a little money from selling her house in San Diego. When she first opened she answered the phone and scheduled patients herself, slowly building it to the bustling office it is today. But she chose dermatology because she knew she could really make big improvements working with both her hands and her scientific brain around skin problems, without having to rely on anesthesiology or invasive procedures. She also liked the idea of working with a whole gambit of patient ranges, all ages and genders, while developing relationships with them and their families over time.

“You’re part of their life and the community,” she said, “and you’re also taking care of the biggest organ that has a lot to do with how comfortable they feel in social settings, and that means a lot to me.”  SD

More information: drbaileyskincare.com