I've mentioned before that my dad was Italian and my mother is Irish. My paternal grandfather owned property on a lake in New Jersey where there were half a dozen bungalows at which the family congregated on weekends and holidays during the summer months. My oldest brother and I were turned loose with more than a dozen cousins to play and swim. Unfortunately, both of us inherited my mother's fair coloring, not my father's olive complexion. While our cousins browned and tanned, A and I cooked and burned. More than once, I ended up in a doctor's office with a serious sunburn.
Fast forward to today when I'm paying for the sins of my youth. Unfortunately, I have more than a nodding acquaintance with skin cancer, which is the subject of this post.
What follows comes from the www.cancer.gov website with additions from my own experience:
- The skin is the body's largest organ.
- Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in this country, surpassing lung, breast, colorectal and prostate cancer.
- About one million Americans develop skin cancer each year.
Skin cancer begins in the cells, the building blocks of our bodies. Every day skin cells grow old and die, and new cells take their place. Sometimes, this orderly process goes wrong. New cells form when the skin does not need them, and old cells do not die when they should. These extra cells can form a mass called a growth or a tumor. These growths can be benign or malignant.
A change on the skin is the most common sign of skin cancer. This may be a new growth, a sore that doesn't heal, or a change in an old growth. Not all skin cancers look the same. Skin changes to watch for:
- A small, smooth, shiny, pale or waxy lump
- A firm red lump
- A sore or lump that bleeds or develops a scab
- A flat red spot that is rough, dry, or scaly and may become itchy
There are three types of skin cancer. The two most common are Basal and Squamous. Both are most often seen in the parts of the body most exposed to the sun (face, head, neck, arms and hands). Basal cell cancer is slow-growing and rarely spreads to other parts of the body. Squamous cell cancer can spread to the lymph nodes and organs inside the body.
The most serious type of skin cancer is called a melanoma. It is rarer than the other two, but causes the most deaths. It is easily cured in the early stages, but is lethal when left untreated. Around 160,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed worldwide annually, and the World Health Organization reports about 48,000 melanoma-related deaths each year. It is more frequent in males and caucasians, and is more common in white populations living in sunny climates.
I had my first basal cell cancer in my twenties. An alert physician noticed it during my annual physical and referred me to a dermatologist because it was in a prominent place on my face. Unfortunately, in the years since, I have had several others on my face and arms. I've become quite good at recognizing them.
For that reason, it came as a huge shock when, ten years after my first basal cell cancer, I DID NOT recognize my first squamous cell cancer. I was shaving my legs and noticed what looked like an small, unhealed sore on the front of my left leg. Looking at it, I couldn't remember where or when I had banged or scratched myself.
I was scheduled to see my gynecologist that morning, and--as an example of how heedless I could be--I mentioned the sore, saying that I didn't even remember hurting myself. He took one look and told me to get to the dermatologist immediately. Since my dermatologist was in the building, he had his nurse call downstairs and get me worked into the schedule.
Within two hours, the dermatologist had excised the lesion and sent the skin off for biopsy, warning me that he was pretty sure it was a squamous cell cancer and, if so, I would need radiation treatment. The doctor was right, and the cancer, which I had not even noticed before that morning, had already metastasized (spread) to nearby cells. Because the lesion was at a place where my skin was thinnest on my leg, right above the bone of my shin, I had three weeks of radiation treatment targeted directly at the affected area.
That experience frightened me deeply. I had become complacent, confident that I could recognize the signs of skin cancer. I had not spotted this cancer for what it was. Had it not been for a couple of fortunate coincidences (shaving my legs on the morning I was going to see my gynecologist and my even mentioning the spot to him), that cancer might have gone unnoticed and untreated for a much longer period of time.
Since that experience, I visit the dermatologist twice a year. Yesterday, I made an unscheduled visit only four months after my last appointment. I called to explain that a small skin tag I'd had for years (again on my left leg) had suddenly started to grow.
My dermatologist didn't have an opening, but when his nurse reported my call, he told her to have me come in that afternoon, and he'd work me into the schedule. I arrived at three and, by four PM, the skin tag had been removed and packed off for a biopsy, and my wound had been cauterized (yuck!) and bandaged.
Please. If you have anything on your skin that looks unusual, go to this page here and look at the photos to see if your spot looks like any of them. Better yet, call your doctor and schedule an appointment.
Why don't you and your partner examine each other's bodies tonight? It can be a sensuous experience. Just make sure the room is lit well enough so that you can see anything unusual.
Maureen Reagan, the daughter of President Reagan, died prematurely at the age of 60 as the result of an untreated melanoma. I grieved when I heard of her death because it was so unnecessary.
Please look after yourself. I care.