Some of you are going to stop reading this post after a few sentences. I hope you won’t!
I am a skin cancer survivor and have the scars to prove it. Two on my face and one very large jagged scar on the back of my leg. Because of this, insurance companies consider me a high risk and for years have denied me coverage. Because of this, I visit a dermatologist at least once a year for a complete skin exam. Because of this, my sons are at a 50% higher risk of developing skin cancer themselves. Because of this, I have become a diligent sunscreen user. Because of this, I have learned not to be embarrassed to wear my unflattering, wide-brimmed hat to my son’s outdoor sporting events or on afternoon walks and it travels with me on vacation. Because of this, I cringe when I see someone with a beautiful tan or hear of someone going to a tanning bed.
When I was growing up, even with my fair skin, I spent time worshiping the sun. Those were the days of baby oil to increase a tan, for those lucky enough to brown, not turn red like a lobster. My mother encouraged me to wear sunscreen. I didn’t listen. I remember in high school my girlfriends and I would spend a day on the beach and there was no sunscreen applied. I would come home bright red. And a few days later it would fade. And then the next weekend I would do it again. By the end of the summer my freckles had sort of blended together in what could almost pass for a tan:) So what if my nose peeled in the process or my lower butt cheeks (that peeked out from my little bathing suit) were too burned for me to sit comfortably. I am convinced that those years are what likely led to my three skin cancers decades later. That damage was done long ago; but now I do my best to prevent any further. And I am careful to watch for recurrences.
The cancers on my face were both basal cell carcinoma. This is the most common form of skin cancer, accounting for about 80% and occurring in more than a million people each year in the US alone. I was lucky – my two were caught early and were located in places with enough skin to cover what was cut out by the surgeon. Now I have a small scar on my cheek and another on my forehead.
The cancer on my leg was melanoma. I knew I should be worried when the dermatologist himself called me at home at 8:00 at night. But again, I was lucky that it was caught early, thanks to my annual visits to have my skin mapped. Had I not been diligent, I might have been one of the unlucky ones who suffer serious complications or even death when the cancer spreads. Instead, I consider myself completely cured now over five years later. But I am ever mindful that my chances are great of another skin cancer sometime, somewhere.
- 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
- Each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than all other cancers combined. More than 2,000,000 people are diagnosed each year.
- 1 American dies of melanoma every 62 minutes. 48,000 melanoma deaths occur worldwide each year.
- The 5-year survival rate for people whose melanoma is treated early is 99%. After the cancer has spread, the survival rate falls to 15%.
- The incidence rate for new cases of melanoma has more than doubled since 1973.
- About 65% of melanoma cases can be attributed to UV radiation from the sun.
- One blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more that doubles your chances of developing melanoma later in life as does having had only five or more sunburns at any age!
- Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the US. More than 3.5 million cases in two million people are diagnosed annually.
- Between 40 and 50% of Americans who live to age 65 will have either basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma.
What you can do? Well, the research is very clear. Most skin cancer can be prevented by practicing sun protection. And it is never too late to start protecting your skin. And while fair-skinned people like myself are most at risk, melanoma is color-blind and can affect anyone, any skin color. (And don’t forget that 90% of visible skin aging is caused by the sun too!) Melanoma most often develops in a pre-existing mole (as mine did) or looks like a new mole, which is why it is important to know what your moles look like. And I know some of you don’t want to hear this – but no tan is a healthy tan (except maybe the kind that comes from a bottle). Check your own skin periodically, even in places where the sun doesn’t shine. Have your doctor check occasionally. And be your own advocate. I had to ask several times, more than one doctor, about the little innocuous spot on my cheek, my first cancer.
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month and today is Melanoma Monday. Please consider taking time to learn more. And taking steps to prevent skin cancer for yourself and your loved ones. Now I will step off my soapbox. Thank you for listening:)
To learn more:
This post, adapted from last year, is dedicated to Patrick, an amazingly supportive blogger who recently had a melanoma scare of his own. Patrick is celebrating being once again cancer free. I’m celebrating along with him.
What are you celebrating today?