Warning: This story contains graphic images.
Marisha Dotson, of Knoxville, Tennessee, was just 24 years old when she first spotted what she believed to be a small pimple on her nose. Little did she know, the small blemish marked the start of a health journey that would change her life — and face — forever.
“My mother passed away when I was a teenager. For me, I looked just like her before all this happened,” Dotson, 29, tells PEOPLE. “So it was hard to let go of the similarities I enjoyed seeing my mom in. Looking like her made me feel closer to her.”
Dotson says she initially thought nothing of the little red mark on her nose in 2014 but became worried when the blemish quickly began to grow in size and became redder. Soon, she says, her entire face began to burn and she suffered migraines. Dotson knew she needed to see a doctor.
“I went to the dermatologist and, within a few minutes of meeting her, she said, ‘I just want to prepare you. This is probably cancer,’ ” Dotson recalls. “I was devastated. But at the time, I tried not to think about it. I was like, ‘Okay, well there’s still a chance that it could be something else!’ “
Despite her hopes, doctors officially diagnosed Dotson with invasive squamous cell carcinoma in July 2014 — just seven weeks after she first spotted the blemish on her nose.
Dotson says she learned that the spot was no pimple at all. Instead, it was a rapidly growing tumor. Less than a month later, on Aug. 7, 2014, she underwent surgery to remove the cancerous growth and quickly learned that the tumor was worse than doctors initially thought.
“The tumor was already abnormal, already aggressive and we didn’t realize how far it had grown in,” she says. “[Doctors] kept cutting. It went in pretty deep, the tumor had invaded into my nerves and had gone in deep into my septum. That surgery was 16 hours … I felt a good portion of my nose was missing. I was trying to not freak out.”
After the surgery, Dotson says, two-thirds of her nose was missing. She recalls looking in the mirror and being shocked by her appearance.
“I didn’t recognize my face anymore … I could see straight into the sinuses,” Dotson tells PEOPLE. “It was just a huge gaping hole. It was still bloody. In my head, I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way this could be fixable.’ It was so devastating. [But doctors said] the main thing is that the tumor is gone and you can go from there.”
Dotson underwent reconstructive surgery to repair her nose. But her new lease on life was short-lived. By the end of the year, Dotson learned that the cancer wasn’t all gone after all.
“I was very sad at first. I cried on the phone when my doctor told me. I was starting to be really happy with the way they reconstructed my nose — it was something I could live with,” she says. “Right as I started to feel like I was getting somewhere, then the cancer comes back. And it kept coming back.”
By the next year, Dotson had undergone several less invasive surgeries to remove cancerous spots on her nose, cheeks and under her right eye. Over the next three years, she’d undergo 49 surgeries to her face to treat the cancer and repair her face after the procedures. She even had her upper jaw and palate removed to take out cancerous tumors, which altered her top lip and jaw.
She also underwent radiation and, at one point, had just a 20 percent chance of surviving. Doctors told Dotson that she could continue undergoing surgeries, or live out her final years with the cancer. Although Dotson says she’s happy to be alive, the surgeries have transformed her face.
“The first years, it was really hard. I was always looking in the mirror at these stitches and these staples,” Dotson says of her altered appearance. “It was really hard to see my face change. I couldn’t do anything to stop it. It really upset me, because it wasn’t the face I was born with. It wasn’t the face I was used to seeing.”
Dotson says her cancer has been in remission for one and a half years, but she suffers migraines, nose bleeds, fevers, constant pain and frequent infections. Still, she says she’s determined to accept the life she has and is hoping to finish school and earn her master’s degree.
“I’ve struggled to get to a point where I’m begrudgingly okay with this. Most days are still really hard for me,” she tells PEOPLE. “The road of recovery has been and still is difficult and painful, but I’m happy to be alive to walk it. I want to “