Can I Have Skin Cancer?

Brooke Shields  has skin cancerWhat  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

Skin cancer  checkDr 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 orange ribbons for skin cancerskin 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.


5 thoughts on “Can I Have Skin Cancer?

  1. I am not sure we have regular skin checks in the UK. They sound like a very good idea. I went three times to my GP with a spot on my nose which bled before I was sent to a dermatologist and was then diagnosed with Basal cell carcinoma, luckily a fairly benign form.

  2. I had melanoma on the back of my calf at about 38. Three dermatologists had looked at it over the course of 2 years and said it was fine. I thought it looked strange so I paid to have it removed by a plastic surgeon, who said, “it looks fine, don’t worry about it”.
    Two weeks later his office called to tell me the lab report came back as positive for melanoma. I had to go in and have a much larger piece of calf removed to be sure they got clean margins.
    Even dermatologists can misdiagnose it. Listen to your gut and be vigilant!

  3. Good piece Deb. I’ve read that a yearly visit to a dermatologist is recommended and more often if you develop something suspicious, like you did, in between. That’s what I do along with my yearly mammography and cholesterol and sugar tests.

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