Here’s the skinny about my run-in with skin cancer that left me a skinned-up survivor.
I’d always been healthy, pretty fit, loved the outdoors, and sunshine on my shoulders. I remember catching crawdads in the creek by my house on many summer days as a kid, looking like a shirtless Huckleberry Finn. Mowed the grass without a shirt on. Lots of beach vacations. Regular stuff.
Then, 12 years ago, when I was 50, I was watching a baseball game, and my wife grabbed my arm for a closer look: there was a mole on my right bicep that had morphed into the Ace of Spades. That wasn’t normal.
I made a quick office appointment with the dermatologist, who eyed the mole with suspicion, and cut out a small chunk of my right bicep for the biopsy– a little deeper than he normally would, till he got to a place he felt the “margins” would be clear. He did the procedure in the office with a local anesthetic. The report came back: melanoma, the rarest and deadliest form of the Big Three skin cancers. (Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are kind of raw-looking or bloody on the skin, but are usually kept in check, the experts say, with early detection and treatment.)
Good News and Bad News
The good news is that there’s a 96 percent survival rate with skin cancers if you catch them early, and get treatment. The bad news is that they can kill you, if you don’t.
What I’ve learned is that three times as many men as women get skin cancer-and that about half of people who live to be 65 will have at least one bout with the disease.
Especially at risk are fair-skinned people with blonde or red hair, and blue or green eyes, and folks who have already had a previous round of skin cancer.
“Suntanning is the single worst thing that you can do to your skin,” says Dr. Doris Day, a New York-based dermatologist, because of the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet rays. She adds that people should “never, ever” go to a tanning bad.
The bad effects of cancer and premature aging skin may take 10 or 15 years to develop, she said, because of a long incubation period.
Be wary of any lesions or bloody spots, or pearly/clear bumps, that won’t heal on your skin for some types of skin cancer. For melanoma, you need to be on a mole watch.
Most people have 30 or 40 moles; it’s just when they start acting strange that you have to watch out.
Skin Cancer Early Detection
Here are the ABCs of the early warning signs of possible skin cancer, based on your moles; if you see one of these signs, see a dermatologist fast.
- · Asymmetry-one side of the mole doesn’t match the other side
- · Borders-are ragged
- · Color-various colors instead of one color
- · Diameter-a mole the size of a pencil eraser
- · Evolving-a mole that is changing in some way
I don’t hide from the sun like a vampire, or dress like a beekeeper at the beach. But there are some common-sense changes that I’m making to play it safe in the sun. I cover up more now, and use a lot of sunscreen. I keep a close watch on the moles, and my wife has my back.
My dermatologist says that everybody ought to be wearing a SPF 50 (Sun Protection Factor) sunscreen. I know that sounds like a sunscreen for babies. But, hey, we’re grown-ups; we should baby our skin!