How to Spot Skin Cancer and Melanoma

Heard the old joke that a doctor is “practicing” medicine? Sometimes it seems just like that! My misspent youth caught up with me in my 30s and is still causing problems in my late 50s.

Do You Trust Your Doctor?

Twenty years ago I noticed a large freckle on the back of my calf. I hadn’t always had it. It was larger than a pencil eraser and it worried me. I pointed it out to my dermatologist who said it was nothing to worry about it. Three years later a new dermatologist assured me it looked fine. Two years later, when we moved back east, a new dermatologist said it was harmless.

Eighteen months later we moved back to California, and you guessed it, another dermatologist said it was fine. I told him it bothered me and I wanted it removed, then biopsied. This doctor literally said,  “You’re being a silly woman. If I remove that, I’ll butcher your leg and it’ll look horrible.” That bedside manner fell flat on me.

I found a Plastic Surgeon who removed it, then biopsied it.

I remember lying on the table, face down, leg numbed, while he cut it out. He said, “This doesn’t look suspicious to me, but you’ll feel more comfortable with it removed.” Ten days later his nurse phoned. The biopsy had come back showing melanoma. They needed to take a larger, deeper, part of my calf to be sure they got it all. I didn’t panic, but I was furious. How could 5 specialists miss my skin cancer? It didn’t fit the criteria for them to be concerned.

This freckle hadn’t darkened or changed during all those years. But my gut told me it wasn’t right. I’m here because I trusted my instincts and was insistent.

Some possible signs of skin cancer:

  • The most important warning sign for melanoma is a new spot, or a spot that is changing in size, shape, or color. Another important sign is a spot that looks different from other spots on your skin (known as the ugly duckling sign). If you have any of these warning signs, have your skin checked by a doctor.
  • The ABCDE rule is another guide to the usual signs of melanoma.

A is for Asymmetry

One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.

B is for Border

The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.

C is for Color

The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.

D is for Diameter

The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across (about ¼ inch – the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.

E is for Evolving

The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.

__________

How to protect your skin:

I wear hats almost everyday and have 3 sun umbrellas. I wear very strong sunscreen everyday. I slather all exposed parts of me, rain or shine. When the salespeople tell me there’s no benefit to using anything higher than an SPF 30, I ignore them.

If I’m in a very sunny place or will be outside a long time, I layer sunscreens. I start with a chemical sunscreen, which goes on bare skin, soaks in and changes how your skin reacts to the sun. Then, I layer a physical block on top which reflects the suns rays. I can’t be too careful.

Look for full spectrum sunscreens that protect against UVA and UVB. Wear UV protective sunglasses, clothing, hats and stay out of the sun. I do all of these and still have spots pop up. They’re from damage caused many years ago.

UVA: A stands for Aging.

This radiation penetrates deep into the skin and is responsible for premature aging of the skin and skin cancer. Tanning beds can emit 2 to 5 times more UVA radiation than the sun. People actually still use these!

UVB: B stands for Burning.

This radiation is stronger than UVA radiation. It mainly affects the outer layers of the skin, causing sunburns, premature aging of the skin, and skin cancer. These rays are strongest during the summer months – especially between 11 am and 4 pm.

You need to be your own advocate when it comes to your health. And skin cancer is serious business. If anything seems off to you, trust your instinct and go the extra mile to be sure. Skin Cancer is deadly.

What type of sunscreen do you use?

 

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65 Comments

  1. Funny you should mention this. I’m having a basel cell carcinoma removed on Tuesday. This will probably be my 26th. No it’s not the sun. I had X-ray treatments for acne as a teenager! I’m now paying the price I go to a speical surgeon in Santa Monica who performs MOS surgery. By this time I can tell when I see one of my face. Some I miss. I go to the doctor every four months. One bioopsy came back negative but I knew it was positive. Sure enough a growth came back and it was positive. So great information. We should all compile our lists of sunscreens. It’s so personal as to what feels good. Of course mine is really a result of xrays and not sun.

  2. Such a helpful post, Jennifer. My Irish/English husband has spent all his time outside playing golf. I finally persuaded him to see my dermatologist, and he has had to have something removed almost every year. The worst was a spot on the tip of his nose that started bleeding. It was cancer, and required a massive procedure which almost cost him the bottom half of his nose. Fortunately, a wonderful plastic surgeon was there to repair the damage. He now has just a small dent in the end of his nose, which he could have repaired, but hasn’t bothered to do so. I would have had it fixed in a heartbeat, but we women are fussier about these things. He looks great, wears sun screen and gets regular check ups, thanks to my nagging. Sometimes nagging pays off.

    As for me, w/my porcelain skin and red hair, I knew even at a young age that exposure to the sun was lethal.

    Cheers, M-T

    1. Yes Cindy!! I’m glad you caught it. Left untreated they progress from Basil Cell to more serious ones.

  3. Such an important post, and well written too. I used to worship the sun, and was (at one point) daft enough to use sunbeds, when I was younger… despite vaguely knowing the risk. Often it’s not until we’re older that we sit up and take notice.

    This is a great awareness piece, I’m glad you went with your gut feeling, was able to get the treatment you needed, and that you’re here to tell the tale.

    Hopefully, your story will make others more wary after reading.

    All the best, Kimmie.

    1. Thanks Kimmie! Worshiping the sun was simoky part of our generation. We actually have Coco Chanel to thank for its popularity. Prior to her, only the “peasants’ got tanned.

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