9News's Kathy Sabine Shares Her Skin Cancer Story

Kathy Sabine following surgery and in a selfie taken yesterday, July 18.
Kathy Sabine following surgery and in a selfie taken yesterday, July 18. Photos courtesy of Kathy Sabine
During her early years in television news, Kathy Sabine's physical gifts were both a blessing and a curse. Quickly labeled one of Denver's most beautiful people, the 9News weather forecaster had to work twice as hard to prove that she's also a talented meteorologist.

During Sabine's 35-years-and-counting broadcasting career, including nearly three decades in the Denver market, her scientific skills have definitely been accepted as a given. But it was still a surprise to many of her fans when Sabine eagerly used her various social media platforms to share sometimes gruesome photos of her face following recent surgeries for skin cancer.

Sabine acknowledges that the images can be startling: "My eye was black and swollen shut and I looked like a monster," she says with a laugh. "Part of my nose was missing. I looked like the Bride of Frankenstein."

Still, she didn't hesitate to put pics of her ordeal on view — and she eagerly provided Westword with previously unpublished shots to allow viewers to track her progress. "I've always wanted to be real with people," she says. "And if this saves one person, who cares about vanity?"
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(From left) A portrait of Kathy Sabine taken shortly before surgery; a shot from her son's eighth-grade continuation in which a small spot can be seen on her nose; a close-up of the surgical area, outlined with a pen.
Photos courtesy of Kathy Sabine
A lover of the outdoors (horses are some of her most frequent companions), Sabine stresses that "I am diligent about sunscreen. I put multiple layers on my face because of what I do for a living, I wear hats on the beach or when I'm riding, and I'm always putting sunscreen on my kids. I've tried to protect my skin and my family's skin."

Still, she continues, "I grew up at elevation" — she's originally from the Lake Tahoe, Nevada, area — "and I don’t know if my parents were great about remembering to apply sunscreen back in the day. It was a different time. ... And because of the altitude in Colorado, we are at the epicenter of skin cancer. The odds of it happening here are so much higher than a lot of other places."

Nonetheless, she adds, "I never thought it would happen to me. I've never had skin cancer, never had pre-cancer, never had to have anything burned off — and I've had my skin checked every six months to a year."

Indeed, her May visit to see Dr. Leslie Capin, whom she describes as "the best dermatologist in the state and perhaps the country," was occasioned not because of cancer concerns, but because she had questions about thinning hair. But since she was in the office, "I showed them an age spot on my nose that I had checked several months earlier. And on the outer edge of the age spot, something I couldn't see, was where she found the cancer. We caught it by accident."

Capin scheduled what's known as a punch biopsy on the spot for May 26 for Sabine, the same day as her son's eighth-grade continuation ceremony; a photo from that day shows a small mark on her nose. Then, a few days later, Sabine learned that the analysis confirmed she had skin cancer — not melanoma, the deadliest form of the disease, but a basal cell-squamous hybrid.
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(From left) A Kathy Sabine post-surgical photo sans bandage; a look at the bolts holding her ear together; the portion of her ear from which cartilage was taken.
Photos courtesy of Kathy Sabine
Because of the location of the cancer, Sabine was scheduled for two operations on July 8 — one a Mohs procedure to remove the troubling area and then plastic surgery to reconstruct her nose using cartilage from her ear (click to access a description of Mohs surgery from the Skin Cancer Foundation). And the discovery of another squamous on her forehead added even more complications to an already challenging sequence of events.

"The technology today is amazing," Sabine stresses. "Mohs doctors say skin cancer is like an iceberg: You may see the tip of the iceberg, but what lies beneath can be so much bigger, deeper and more extensive. So when they do a Mohs procedure, you lay there for an hour or so — go under the microscope. And if your margins are clear of cancer, they do a really cool cosmetic procedure and sew you up. But in my case, it took three cuts. They took one cut, put it under the microscope, and went back again to do another. That's why there was a big hole on the side of my nose. Then they saw another spot near my eyes and found another cancer cell — and that meant they had to do another Mohs procedure. Then they took me over to the hospital and the plastic surgeon met me there. That surgery went on for hours as well, because with so much of my nose gone and the other cancer they found, they had to come up with a whole new plan for me."

Eventually, the medical team, which included Dr. David Archibald and Dr. Alison Basak, managed to excise all of the cancer — and Sabine is eternally grateful for their efforts. "All of them are amazing," she says.

Because of the surgeries, Sabine had to take time off from 9News just weeks after she'd announced that she would no longer appear on the station's 10 p.m. newscasts, where she'd been an extremely popular staple for eighteen years. She emphasizes that her decision to focus on the 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. weeknight programs had nothing to do with her diagnosis. "They were totally unrelated," she says. "But I'm so happy that I decided to stay. Everyone at the station has been wonderful — and, of course, there are the health benefits."

About a week and a half after the surgeries, Sabine notes that "the swelling is really coming down and I'm feeling so much better. I haven't had to use any pain medication for four or five days — and it was my ear, where they took the cartilage, that was the most painful when they took out the bolts they'd put in and some of the stitches. But I have very minimal pain anywhere now."

More plastic surgery could be in the offing, depending on how her nose heals — and no matter what, she notes, there's the possibility that her appearance could be subtly altered. But with luck, she'll be cleared for everyday activities, and a return to the airwaves, following a doctor's appointment at the end of the month.
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Kathy Sabine with members of her medical team.
Photo courtesy of Kathy Sabine
Upon her arrival back at 9News, Sabine would love to put together a public-service announcement, a news report or perhaps both about the importance of regular skin examinations. "It's a quick doctor visit," she points out. "You're literally in there for fifteen or twenty minutes. It's so easy, and it can save your life — and we've got great dermatologists in this state. We have the best here."

In the meantime, Sabine has been absolutely floored by the comments she's received on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram from people wishing her well, in addition to Coloradans sharing their own stories about skin cancer.

"I've been crying a lot this last week," she acknowledges. "They tell me the anesthesia is why I've been so emotional. We didn't think this would be a big deal, and it's turned out to be a really big deal. But the tears come more from the responses I've been getting. Everyone has been so supportive and loving, and it's so humbling to have that connection and that sense of community at a time when you feel so isolated and alone and just want to hide in your house and not see anyone. I can't even tell you how incredible it's been to be a part of that."

She adds that "getting the word out about this is so important. People know me because I'm on TV, and sometimes they don't think I'm a real person and I have this perfect life. But I'm a human being like everyone else, and really scary things can happen. And because I have this platform, I want to do everything I can to help other people."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts