Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Scared into checking for skin cancer
A few years ago, I was walking with friends in downtown Chicago. Fleming, who was 8, came up behind me, grabbed the back of my upper arm, yelled "boo," laughed and ran ahead. A few seconds later, I felt a faint trickle of something warm. Blood was coming out of a mole. Not good. I immediately made an appointment with my dermatologist.

I thought about my experience when I heard that first lady Laura Bush had skin cancer (Full Story). In November, doctors removed a nickel-sized tumor from her leg. A biopsy determined it was a squamous cell carcinoma, a malignant tumor. It's the second most common form of skin cancer.

The exact numbers of cases of this type of cancer are hard to know because doctors are not required to report them, but the American Cancer Society estimates that between 200,000 and 300,000 cases are diagnosed every year. It kills up to 2,000 people annually, mostly the elderly in whom the cancer is detected far too late or those who are immune compromised. Men are three times more likely than women to get squamous cell carcinoma, probably as a result of more sun exposure.

Cancer experts also say that people with fair skin and who have had prolonged sun exposure are more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma. It's more common in the southern latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Mrs. Bush is from Texas. Fortunately, her cancer was caught early and she's expected to make a complete recovery.

So what about you? Are you at risk?

The American Cancer Society says these are the warning signs for skin cancer:

1) Changes in existing moles, blemishes or freckles.

2) New growths, spots or bumps getting larger.

3) Sores that don't heal within three months.

Also - another thing to keep in mind, there may be suspicious moles in places you can't see every day, as in my case, the back of the arm. Make an effort to check those places as well.

When I saw my dermatologist, he took a punch biopsy of my suspicious mole. A short time later, he told me I had pre-cancerous melanoma or as he put it, "pre-John McCain cancer." (That's the bad kind - the American Cancer Society estimates close to 8,000 people die from that yearly.)

Had I waited another month to get it checked out, he said, it most likely would have been cancer. After my scare, I became more diligent about checking for skin cancer. I hope the first lady's news will prompt others to do the same.
I was diagnosed with melanoma in 1985.

The cancer developed in a mole on my back, which had been sunburned the previous summer. Surgical excision was completed within three days of the diagnosis. Neither chemo, nor radiation was required, whew!

As a freckled redhead born & raised in sunny San Diego, I'm lucky to have had only one occurrence. Many people die from melanoma, because it spreads so quickly.

Be wise: wear sunblock, inspect yourself regularly, and meet with a dermatologist at least once/year ... especially if you're fair-skinned!
I treated myself to a full body scan at the dermatologist last year. I left feeling that I had wasted his time because he said I have healthy skin and could find nothing wrong with me. No matter. I will go every few years for a scan.
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