What do Brooke Shields, Bill Clinton, Cybil Shepherd and Anderson Cooper have in commen? They are just a few of the 3.5 million Americans who are diagnosed each year with skin cancer and it is the most common form of cancer in young adults. Each year more than 10,000 people die from skin cancer, but when caught early it is almost always curable. And the key to early diagnosis is the annual skin check.
When Skin Cancer Becomes Personal
Writing about skin cancer always felt like someone elses problem. I was never a big sun bather and never saw the need for a skin check. Then my husband was diagnosed with squamous cell skin cancer and suddenly it became personal, very personal. Sitting with my husband and waiting for biopsy results, I began to look with increasing anxiety at the little brown and red spots on my body. When three new ones seemed to pop up overnight, I called Dr Ellen Marmur for my first ( and long overdue) full body skin check.
Attacking Skin Cancer Inch By Inch
Dr Ellen started by looking at the new spots that scared me silly– one on each arm and another on my cheek. They all turned out to be seborrheic keratoses.They are not so much from sun exposure as something that comes from age. In other words there is a reason they are called ‘age spots’. Then Dr Marmur started on the skin check proper. She went from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. She even looked between the toes noting that reggae great Bob Marly died from melanoma that started with a spot on his toes.
In between the head and feet, Dr Marmur checked my back, neck, legs and arms with a dermatoscope, a magnifying glass that has polarizing light. This allows her to see differences in pigmentation in the spot as well as reveal the depth of a lesion. ( The deeper it goes, the more it needs watching). If she sees a spot with unusual characteristics, she takes a picture with a tablet that can translate the photo into a digital image. With this information, over time, she can track changes in size and color with pinpoint accuracy.
When Dr M sees spot that might be a melanoma she does a biopsy and I was shocked when she found a suspicious spot on my rib cage. It was new and very dark, two signs that it should be removed and examined. The area was numbed with a shot of lidocaine, the spot shaved off and dumped into a little speciman jar. Skin checks take about 30 minutes are covered by most insurance plans. Just do it!
Dr Marmur is climbing Mount Kilimanjaro this summer to increase awareness of skin cancer and raise $1,000,000 for the American Academy of Dermatology for their skin cancer prevention and research programs. In recognition for their courage, she is bringing hundreds of orange ribbons with the names of skin cancer survivors to the climb. If you or friends and family members have had skin cancer, please send in your name to participate in this important health campaign.