I was never a sun worshiper. Laying around sweating to get a tan wasn’t my thing. So I was very surprised the first time I was diagnosed with skin cancer at age 27. Luckily, it wasn’t Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. My skin cancer was Basal Cell Carcinoma. BCCs are slow-growing. The doctor told me it was probably from sun exposure when I was a child. When I was little, not as much was known about skin cancer. Blue, green or gray eyed, fair-complexioned children are more at risk, but all children should wear sun screen and hats when playing in the sun.
My first BCC was on my back and grew quite large. I had always had a mole there. I used to rub it subconsciously, like people who play with their hair. One day I noticed that it was larger than it used to be so I asked my gynecologist to look at it during my normal yearly exam. He said I should see a dermatologist and recommended one. I called the next day to make an appointment, but the recommended doctor was on vacation. The receptionist asked who had recommended me and I replied “My gynecologist.” She said the associate could see me and she was female so I would probably feel more comfortable any way. I mentioned to Paul later what the receptionist had said and added “Why would she think I would be more comfortable with a woman?” Paul said, “Think about it, Sharon. Your gynecologist recommended you.” I was so naïve in my younger years.
When I arrived, I explained to the dermatologist that I had the mole for as long as I could remember, but that it was larger than it used to be. She looked at it and said, “I want to remove that; do you have time?” I said “Today?” She said “Yes, we really need to get it analyzed.” So, I agreed and she removed the entire mole in the office and sent it for a biopsy. I was familiar with Melanoma and moles because I had a sister-in-law who died five years after having a mole removed. The Melanoma had spread to her brain. I expressed my concern to the doctor and she said I shouldn’t worry, it was probably a more common, less dangerous form of skin cancer or nothing at all.
A couple of weeks later, I was visiting my mom at her house when I was surprised by a call from the doctor. She said she had called my house and Paul told her where I was and gave her the number (no cell phones back then). She said the cancer was basal cell and that she had gotten all of it, but I needed to come back in so she could examine me all over for any other suspicious moles or lesions. Wasn’t that nice of her to call on a Friday night. Now remember, she had told me on that day not to worry, it was probably nothing. When I arrived for my follow-up and checked in, the receptionist said “Dr. *** was so excited when she got the results of the biopsy, she was so worried.” After a thorough exam, she even used a hair dryer to blow my hair so she could see my scalp, I was pronounced suspicious spot free.
Jump ahead 30 years. Now you might think that having skin cancer myself and the fact that my mom lost half of her nose to skin cancer a few years later, I would be good about protecting myself from the sun. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. So, one day I noticed a small bump on my neck. It looked like a mosquito bite so I ignored it. It started to fade away, but a couple of days later came back. Odd, I thought. I kept an eye on it and it happened a couple of more times – looked like it was healing, but came back. So I asked someone at work to recommend a dermatologist on the south side and made an appointment. I explained to the doctor that I had a sore that wouldn’t heal. I also told him of my past experience with the mole. He said he would take a small piece and send it to be biopsied. He scheduled an appointment a couple of weeks out to remove it entirely because he would have the biopsy results by then. He knew it needed to be removed, he just didn’t know exactly what he was dealing with. Turned out to be my old nemesis, BCC. After it was removed I had a 2-inch scar on my neck because the small mosquito-bite-sized bump was larger under the top layer of skin.
So, here I am a year or two later and I find another sore that won’t heal. This time on the top of my head. At first I thought it was from bumping my head – I bump my head often. In fact, I’m sick of bumping my head! You would think that it was overly sized or something. I mean I’ve had it forever, I should be used to it being there. As for the sore, at first I picked it periodically. Scab picking – a nasty habit. After a couple of months, I told myself I had to stop picking it – it was never going to heal. Stopping didn’t help. Two to three months later it was still there, even though the scab fell off naturally a couple of times. So off to the dermatologist again.
He looked at it and started preparing to take a portion for a biopsy. I asked him if it was BCC again. He said it looked like it, but he couldn’t be sure without the biopsy. Well, a couple of weeks later the biopsy results were back – yep, it’s BCC. I have another appointment in January where we will discuss treatment options. I’ve been looking on the intranet to see what the options are for removing skin cancer from the scalp. Some of the images are pretty graphic and really gross. Looks like whether or not the hair grows back depends on how deep and wide he has to go to get it all. If they can stitch my scalp up, I will only be bald where the scar is. If they have to do a skin graft, I’ll have a bald spot. So, I guess I’ll start letting my hair grow in case I have to start combing it over to cover a bald spot. Or become known as the “hat lady”.
Now I am urging all parents to please protect your children from too much sun. Teach them at an early age to wear a hat. Don’t assume that if they don’t “burn” it is okay. And avoid tanning beds. Look at videos on the intranet of skin cancer removal and that should scare the begeebies out of you. Even if you don’t get skin cancer, you’ll probably eventually wind up with leather looking and feeling skin. Is a tan worth looking like a lizard in your elder years?
* Melanoma growths develop when unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells (most often caused by ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or tanning beds) triggers mutations (genetic defects) that lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors. These tumors originate in the pigment-producing melanocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis. Melanomas often resemble moles; some develop from moles. The majority of Melanomas are black or brown, but they can also be skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue or white. Melanoma is caused mainly by intense, occasional UV exposure (frequently leading to sunburn), especially in those who are genetically predisposed to the disease.
** BCCs are abnormal, uncontrolled growths or lesions that arise in the skin’s basal cells, which line the deepest layer of the epidermis (the outer most layer of the skin). BCCs often look like open sores, red patches, pink growths, shiny bumps, or scars. Usually caused by a combination of cumulative UV exposure and intense, occasional UV exposure, BCC can be highly disfiguring if allowed to grow, but almost never spreads beyond the original tumor site. Only in exceedingly rare cases can BCC spread to other parts of the body and become life-threatening.