“How long has that mole been there?’
“I don’t know? A while. You never noticed it before?”
That short conversation with my husband sent me into a mild panic (ok, maybe not so mild). Could that mole on the inside of my right knee be something serious? It had been there for as long as I could remember, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how long, which made me panic even more.
I didn’t have a dermatologist; I didn’t even have a GP. Although I just had my first baby, so I did have an OBGYN.
I had my annual appointment a few weeks later, and I asked my OB if she thought that mole looked suspicious. She said, “Listen, with your fair skin, you should be getting an annual skin check. It’s a fast and easy appointment.”
But working mom life with a newborn took over. I struggled to balance it all. I had a baby in daycare who was getting sick, so I was missing even more work after coming back from 12 weeks of maternity leave. Then my husband’s job transferred us to a new city, so it was several more months before I finally made an appointment with a dermatologist to get that mole checked out.
The doctor did a biopsy, and then I waited. And waited. And waited.
Five days later, she called me (the phone call…it’s never a good sign when they call you) to tell me that the mole on my leg was melanoma.
“Don’t freak out,” she said. But how could I not?
I had melanoma—skin cancer. And a baby.
All I could think about were the poor choices I had made in my 20’s and every single sunburn I had as a child. I would spend the next several nights rocking my baby to sleep, praying I would be able to see him grow up and have the chance to give him a younger sibling.
Thankfully, the biopsy showed the melanoma to be very thin, but I had to go back to have additional tissue cut out to ensure there was no cancer in the margins and that it hadn’t spread further or gone deeper.
One centimeter doesn’t sound like much, but 1 cm where the mole had been ended up being a two-inch incision. The pathology came back clear, but I had a really long, ugly, raised pink scar on my leg to remind me of what could have been much worse.
“A scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”
This quote from the book, “Little Bee” by Chris Cleave has stuck with me because I would see that scar every day, and it would remind me how lucky I had been.
My baby was now 15 months old, and we had just found out that we were pregnant again. For the next two years, I had quarterly skin checks with my dermatologist, and then every six months for eight years after that. And now here I am 11 years later and thankfully there have been no recurrences.
A few months ago, my husband was also diagnosed with melanoma. During a long-delayed visit to the dermatologist about a funny patch of dry skin on his shoulder (that turned out to be basal cell carcinoma), the doctor found a spot on his back. Except it wasn’t a mole. It was a small area that was slightly pink and very itchy, like dry skin or maybe a scar.
It definitely did not look like your “typical” melanoma.
Like me, he was very lucky. The melanoma was removed and he’s now on a quarterly schedule of skin checks for the next two years.
One might think the odds were pretty small that both my husband and I would have melanoma. However, the Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that 1 in 5 people will develop some form of skin cancer by the age of 70.
We can’t undo what’s already been done, but we can protect ourselves going forward, which means sunscreen, hats, self-exams, and regular dermatology check-ups.
Specifically, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that you:
- Seek the shade, especially between 10 AM and 4 PM.
- Don’t get sunburned.
- Avoid tanning, and never use UV tanning beds.
- Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
- Apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or excessive sweating.
- Keep newborns out of the sun. Use sunscreen on babies over the age of six months.
- Examine your skin head-to-toe every month.
- See a dermatologist at least once a year for a professional skin exam.
When detected early, skin cancer is highly treatable.
Because skin cancer is a cancer we can SEE, noticing changes in our skin through self-exams and having annual check-ups with a dermatologist are important in early detection.
But what about our children?
I wish I could go back and tell my younger self a lot of things, but protecting my skin from the sun is at the top of my list.
While I can’t change the past, I most certainly can take all of the right precautions with my kids.
Local dermatologist, Dr. Rahul Chavan, stresses the importance of protecting our kids from the sun. “Parents have an important role to play in making sure their children can have fun safely outside. A very important precaution to take into consideration is to have a plan for sun protection while outdoors,” Chavan says.
“Try to stay out of the sun (or at least find shade) in the middle of the day (10 am- 4 pm) when UV light is the most intense. Also, try to wear sun-protective clothing, and if possible ultra-protective (UPF) clothing. Hats and rash guards are extremely effective with regard to sun protection. And of course, don’t forget to use sunscreen abundantly and frequently on sun-exposed skin areas. SPF 30 or higher is ideal.”
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, so let us all commit to putting these practices in place and following the recommendations regarding sun protection for ourselves and our families.
And for us grown-ups, make an appointment with a dermatologist for a skin exam.
If you haven’t had one, now is the time!