Skin Cancer Strikes Home

When you write about health as frequently as I do, a few things are bound to happen. You start to actually do some of the things experts suggest like shutting the toilet seat lid before flushing so as not to spray your toothbrush with poo water and letting go of guilt and just indulging in that good-for-you dark chocolate (hey! the experts recommend it!). You also start to become something of an expert yourself. An M.D. wannabe who self-diagnoses everyone – family, friends, neighbors, people in the checkout line at Target, and yes, yourself – with every ailment you write about. You know just enough to be dangerous. And annoying.

So it was no surprise that every mole and mark on my body started to look suspicious as I researched and wrote a Family Circle article about women with skin cancer. I take a peculiar pride in staying as pale as possible, but when you log 100+ hours on a bike every week in Colorado, you’re bound to show some signs of sun exposure no matter how many gallons of SPF50 you apply. There’s nothing like interviewing a half a dozen women who’ve had cancer sliced and diced off of their bodies to motivate you to see the dermatologist. In fact, all of us should see a skin doc once a year for skin checks (more often if you have a history of skin cancer). My husband and I were about 4 years overdue.

My neighbor recommended a dermatologist; appointments were made. Then my husband came home from getting a hair cut. “The stylist said I’ve got a brown patch on my scalp. What do you see?” he asked thrusting his thinning salt-and-pepper bulb in front of me. Now, my husband (of course) is a great-looking guy. But he inherited his mom’s moley skin, and that includes moles on his scalp. This patch? It was new. It was brown, kind of scaly looking. It wasn’t right. Unfortunately, my husband also inherited his family’s penchant to worry. They’re masters of the fret. So I didn’t say, “That looks like cancer” (but based on my research and interviews, it did). Nor did I say, “You know, I interviewed a woman whose hair stylist noticed a spot on her ear. It was melanoma.” (It’s in the Family Circle article; read it.) What I said was, “Yeah, I’d definitely have the doctor check that out.”

You know where this is going. That mini-M.D. was right.

Last week, my husband had Mohs surgery to remove basal cell carcinoma (BCC) from his scalp. If you’re going to get a skin cancer diagnosis, BCC is the one you want. Although it can be disfiguring, it’s not a killer like melanoma or squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). The Mohs procedure uses a high-powered microscope to ensure all cancerous tissue is removed during one surgical procedure. There’s a 99 percent cure rate. My husband will be fine (although he’ll be more vigilant about wearing sunscreen and hats, and he will need to see a dermatologist every six months for a while).

The chances that you or I will get skin cancer are high. It will happen to one out of every five adults. Going to a tanning bed? Sigh. Why not just start smoking? They’re both self-destructive. Fake baking makes you 74 percent more likely to get melanoma. It also ups your risk of BCC and SCC. Plus, have you seen the photos of the leather-faced mom accused of letting her kindergartener use a tanning bed? If that doesn’t stop your tanorexia, what will?

Skin cancer doesn’t discriminate. It can and does strike people with dark skin, pale skin, those with freckles, those without, African-Americans, Hispanics, the young and the old. It happens to everyday women like the ones profiled in the June issue of Family Circle. It happens to people like my husband.

Visit the American Academy of Dermatology to find a dermatologist near you.