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.

On Mom’s Birthday: The Ultimate Gift

Today would have been my mom’s 65th birthday. She passed away two years ago just five days after turning 63. Her death certificate reads “probable aortic aneurysm.” That’s a bulge or weakening in the lower part of the aorta, the major blood vessel that supplies blood to the body. It’s as good of a guess as any. Mom was sick for years before she passed. In the last month before her death, she spent more days in a hospital than out. I wish I could tell you exactly what was wrong: that she had some sort of cancer or other readily diagnosable problem. But her illnesses (yes, plural) baffled doctors. She would have been a terrific test case for Dr. House.

In addition to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure (that was a new thing: she, her mom and I all have really low BP, but then mom’s skyrocketed), and the lovely bipolar disorder, docs eventually slapped her with the diagnosis of “mixed connective tissue disease.” I know. What? It’s a mix of various autoimmune disorders including lupus, Reynaud’s and rheumatoid arthritis. Yep, mom had all of those. Steroids were about the only thing that helped, but of course, you’re not supposed to be on those long-term. MCTD didn’t exactly do her in, but it paved the way. When you’re popping a kaleidoscope of pills hoping one will make your day somewhat grin-and-bearable, it takes a toll on your body. Not eating and drinking will do that too, and towards the end, mom was unable to keep much down.

Mom was an organ donor, but in the end, her body was so spent that the only part they could use were her corneas. And her body. Years before becoming ill, mom did one of the most selfless things a person can do: she signed the paperwork that would donate her body to a medical college upon her passing. The fact that mom died in a hospital made this donation easier, but one needn’t be in such a setting to give this gift. Every large state medical college accepts donated bodies (also referred to as cadavers). They’re used to teach residents the ins and outs of the human body (things you can’t learn from a textbook). Sometimes they’re used for research purposes. You can find info about your state’s process by googling the name of your state + body donation. That’s what I did after mom died. In her honor, I’m now a body donor too. I know it’s not for everyone. The way I see it, when I’m dead, I’m done with my body. I don’t want a funeral where people can gawk at my remains. We still had a lovely memorial service for mom after she died; and then, about six months later, the medical school sent us her ashes. There were also several touching services held at the medical school for the families of those loved ones who gave this ultimate gift.  It didn’t cost my family a dime, and I feel certain that her donation has helped several doctors become better at what they do. My mom was a very giving person, so the fact that she did this doesn’t surprise me. I know it can be off-putting to some, which is why I encourage you to learn more about body donation. It may not be the right choice for you, so consider organ donation instead. And the next time you see a doctor, send up a silent thanks to people like my mom who, in the end, really did give their all.

The United States of Obesity

     My home state of West Virginia is once again making headlines. According to a recently released survey from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, more than a third of all Mountaineers are obese; only Mississippi and Alabama have more obese residents. West Virginia’s been losing the battle of the bulge for some time now (20 years ago, it was the 4th fattest state), so this isn’t exactly news. It always bugs me when people refer to West Virginia as a southern state (I lived in the northern panhandle which is much more aligned with the decidedly nonsouthern states of Ohio and Pennsylvania; plus, folks from the south still refer to us as Yankees), but the survey lumps W.Va. in with other struggling southern states and I’ll admit that’s a fair assessment. Besides bursting at the seams with fat folks, the heaviest states  – Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana – have more than their share of poor folks. Not surprisingly, a lot of these people are depressed. Also not surprisingly, most don’t get any help for that depression. Instead of Prozac, they reach for full-fat ice cream or chips and dip. Besides antidepressants, you know what else boosts mood? Exercise. But when you’re living paycheck to paycheck, a gym membership isn’t exactly in the budget. My W.Va. relatives, unfortunately, are doing their part to ensure the state eventually is ranked first in fatties. I grew up there, I get it: As a kid, I rode my bike freely on the road in front of my parent’s rural house. Today, I won’t even walk on the berm for fear of being flattened by coal trucks and gas and oil company rigs. The area has changed. The nearest gym is a good twisty, turny 30- to 45-minute drive away. Finding a way to exercise is a challenge, to say the least.

     Today, my husband, sons and I live in Colorado, the state with the smallest percentage of obese residents of any in the nation. Unfortunately all this really means is that we’re the skinniest of the increasingly fat. Fifteen years ago, only 10 percent of Coloradoans were weighted down with excess pounds; that number’s now doubled to almost 20 percent. As one official said in this Denver Post article, “Being first in a race where everyone’s losing is nothing to be proud of.” Like the rest of the country, Colorado residents are packing more pounds than they should.

     Earlier this month, the USDA kicked its confusing food pyramid to the curb and replaced it with My Plate. The idea is that half of our plates should be filled with fruits and veggies (which are rich in vitamins, nutrients and

USDA’s My Plate

antioxidants) while the other half should be about evenly split between protein (meats) and grains (preferably whole ones). A small circle off to the plate’s side is for dairy (a glass of milk, a cup of yogurt). The nice thing about this redesign is that we can all relate to a plate (that pyramid thing? not so much). The government has given up trying to dictate how many servings we should strive for (we weren’t listening anyways), and instead is giving us a tool to help visualize what healthy portions and meals should look like. Of course, this will only help if people actually familiarize themselves with My Plate and use it. I’m curious, will you use My Plate when fixing your family’s meals?

     Want to see how fat your state is? Take a look at the full report.

That Thingamajig Called Your Thyroid



My friend is having her thyroid removed today. After numerous biopsies with inconclusive results, her doctor thought it best to remove the gland. It’ll be biopsied to see if she has thyroid cancer, the 5th most common cancer in women. No one wants to have cancer, but this is one of the better ones to have: The 5-year survival rate is about 97 percent.

It seems as though every woman I talk to either has a thyroid problem or knows someone who does. My mom’s thyroid, for instance, was underactive. All that meant to me was that there was a medical reason for her weight problem. I never really understood what this thing called the thyroid was. With my friend going under the knife, it was time to find out.

Your thyroid gland is located on the front of your neck just above your collar bone. thyroidThanks to the Mayo Clinic for this helpful illustration, but now that Anatomy 101 is done, let’s get to the really important healthful stuff like why your thyroid’s important. For starters, it releases hormones that control things like how fast you burn calories and how fast your heart beats. In other words, it’s critical to your metabolism and therefore your weight. For unknown reasons, sometimes your thyroid starts acting wonky, producing too much hormone (overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism) or too little (underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism). I have a hard time distinguishing between the two types, so I taught myself this trick: Hypo rhymes with low. If your hormones are low, your body functions will be slow so you won’t be torching many calories. Therefore: Hypo = Low (hormones) = Slow (metabolism) = Hello Weight Watchers! If your thyroid’s in hyper-drive, however, it’s revved like a hyperactive kid and using up all kinds of energy, including the calorie kind. As a result, you have no problem sliding on those skinny jeans. Since our country isn’t in the grips of a supermodel crisis, it should come as no surprise to hear that more of us have clunker thyroids than Porsches (about 5 percent have underactive thyroids or hypothyroidism compared to 1 percent with overactive thyroids or hyperthyroidism).

Thyroid cancer is a slightly different animal. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 44,000 Americans (75 percent of them women) were diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2010. The disease will claim the lives of close to 1,000 women this year. The number of people diagnosed with thyroid cancer is on the rise, though experts say this may be due to new technology that makes it easier to find small cancers early. As I mentioned, the survival rate is very good, though it certainly helps if you know the symptoms of thyroid cancer which include difficulty swallowing, enlarged lumps in the throat, neck swelling, cough, hoarseness or vocal changes. I have a good feeling that my friend’s results will come back benign or noncancerous. Over the last six months, she’s really struggled with extreme fatigue, weight gain and depression. I hope this is the cure she needs to get her back on a healthy track.