I grew up in Key West, Florida and Honolulu, Hawaii—a fair-skinned, blue-eyed girl who loved the sun, spent hours at the beach, and believed that brown skin looked healthier than white. My friends and I put iodine in baby oil to hasten the tanning process. I never used sunscreen stronger than SPF 4.
At 36, I noticed a small freckle on my upper left chest and watched it for about 18 months before making a dermatology appointment. The physician shined a light on the area and stated he saw irregular borders and shades of gray. I knew immediately the biopsy report was going to be bad. I knew it was probably melanoma. One of my very good friends had been diagnosed with melanoma and had died several years prior, so I had some knowledge of the cancer.
When the diagnosis came back malignant nodular melanoma, I had a wide excision with the intent of removing all tissue around the area and a chest Xray to look for possible metastasis, or spreading. I was blessed; as best as could be determined, the cancer had been totally removed.
That was 17 years ago. My goal now is to be the lily-fair Southern belle at the beach wearing long sleeves with SPF 30 or higher in the material, a wide four-inch-brimmed hat, and SPF lotion of 30 or higher. I also avoid midday sun (10 a.m.-3 p.m.), and I grab every opportunity to shout from the rafters, “Avoid tanning beds, booths, and tanning PERIOD!”
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. More than 2 million people are treated for basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma each year. Basal cell skin cancer is several times more common than squamous cell carcinoma.
Melanoma is a form of cancer that begins in the melanocytes (cells that make the pigment melanin). It may begin in a mole (skin melanoma), but can also begin in other pigmented tissues such as the eye. According to the National Cancer Institute, there were an estimated 68,130 new cases of melanoma in 2010, with 8,700 deaths.
In the booklet “What You Need to Know About Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers,” the NCI describes how to do a self-exam and discusses diagnosis, staging, treatment, follow-up care, and how to prevent another skin cancer from forming.
Early detection/diagnosis is crucial. Monitoring your skin for changes is of utmost importance. Use ABCDE: A for asymmetry, B for irregular borders, C for color changes, D for increasing diameter, and E for evolution/elevation/enlaring. Having a thorough head-to-toe skin evaluation by a trained medical professional is the key to early detection.
Treatment of melanoma requires surgical removal and may include chemotherapy, photodynamic therapy (treatment with drugs that become active when exposed to light; the activated drugs may kill cancer cells), radiation therapy or biological therapy/immunotherapy.
If you notice a freckle that turns into a mole, get checked, unclothed, head to toe. It could save your life.
For the latest information about skin cancer, refer to cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/skin, or call 800-422-6237, (800-4-cancer).
M! April/May 2011.