You Could Save a Life From Skin Cancer
This year, nearly 10,000 Americans will die of melanoma. But you can void being a statistic. In this special report, Health reveals lifesaving insights from skin cancer experts and women who learned firsthand just how important it is to keep an eye on yourself and those you love.
Getty ImagesTalk about skin cancer and you quickly find yourself talking in superlatives.
It's the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States: In the last 30 years, more Americans have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined. And it can happen to anyone, no matter her age or ethnicity or the amount of time she's spent in the sun. In fact, one in five Americans will at some point develop the disease.
It's also the most visible cancer. Because we look at our skin in the mirror every day, we are the first line of defense against this disease. In one study, up to 57 percent of melanoma patients were able to diagnose themselves through self-exams. (Spouses find at least 12 percent of melanomas, according to a second study.)
And when it's detected early, it's one of the most curable cancers. If melanoma—the deadliest form—is found before it has spread to nearby lymph nodes, the survival rate is about 98 percent. The rate falls to 63 percent if it's detected only once it has spread to the lymph nodes—and to 16 percent if it reaches distant organs. "The most important thing is early detection," says Joel L. Cohen, MD, director of AboutSkin Dermatology in Englewood, Colo.
So it's crucial to regularly look at your own skin, and to speak up if you spot something suspicious on someone else's. The women who share their stories here found their cancers thanks to a friend, a mother, even a hairdresser—and, in one case, her own insistence that something just wasn't right. When it comes to skin cancer, we can truly have each other's backs.
My best friend saw something
Brandi Tobias, 30, a medical receptionist in Cape Cod, Mass. Diagnosed with melanoma in 2011.
When I was growing up, my whole life was the beach. To me, a tan looked and felt good. In high school, I began using tanning beds to get that glow year-round.
But it all caught up with me on Fourth of July weekend in 2011. I was standing in the water with Kristen, my best friend since the sixth grade. She said, "Hey, you've got a really weird spot on your back—it's pink and brown and white." My stomach dropped.
That Monday, I headed to the dermatologist. The physician's assistant looked at the spot under a magnifier, took measurements, thought it was nothing and sent me on my way. But that mole was speaking to me every time I looked at it in the mirror, so in November I returned and said, "I just want this thing taken off."
They shaved it to do a biopsy, and about a week later, as I was driving home from work, the PA called. She said, "Could you pull over?" Then she told me that the biopsy results had come back: It was stage 1 melanoma. My mind was racing so fast, I didn't even hear the rest of what she said. I drove home crying the whole way. A few weeks later, I had the mole removed. The incision was about 5 inches long; luckily, I didn't need any further treatment. After that, I saw my local dermatologist every six months, plus a specialist in Boston once a year. But now I'm pregnant, and hormones can affect skin cancer, so I've been seeing a dermatologist every three months just in case.
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These days, even being at the beach gives me anxiety. When I do go, I totally cover up—hat, umbrella, sunscreen. My friend Kristen, who truly saved my life, is also very conscientious about the sun now.
Today my mission in life is to warn other people about skin cancer. On Facebook, I post good protective products and reminders like "Have you made your dermatology appointment this year?" I also lobbied to get tanning beds banned in a nearby town for people under age 18. I hope that by putting myself out there, I'll help others avoid going through what I did.
My mom nagged—luckily for me
Lisa Jacob, 44, a human services specialist in New Market, Md. Diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma and melanoma in 2010.
The spot on the outside corner of my right eye was small, pink and bumpy. My mom kept telling me how unattractive it was—that I should have it looked at. Just to please her, I went to the dermatologist.
He didn't look only at my face; he did a whole-body scan. When he was checking the right side of my back, I heard him say, "That one looks suspicious." I had no idea what he was talking about, but he took samples from there and from the bump by my eye. Maybe I was in denial—I had been a lifeguard as a teenager, and I'd just burn, peel and freckle over and over—but I thought, "OK, they're doing biopsies, but it probably won't turn out to be anything." A week later, though, the doctor's office called: The spot on my back was melanoma and the one on my face was basal cell carcinoma.
Another dermatologist did the surgery on my back. The melanoma was in situ, meaning pre-stage 1, and smaller than an eraser head, but the scar is about 1.5 inches long. The surgery on my eye was done with an ocular plastic surgeon. He had to cut my lower eyelid; it was a pea-size incision but pretty deep. That scar isn't noticeable unless I point it out and someone looks really closely. I get yearly checkups and have been cancer-free for four years.
I feel lucky that my cancer was discovered early. When your mom nags, it's not always a bad thing! Maybe someday my own daughter will agree with me on that.
Doctors assumed I wasn't at risk
Tyreesha Bolton, 33, a musician in Denver. Diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma in 2013.
The first time I noticed something on my right foot was about a dozen years ago. It was just a tiny spot on my arch, with a dry, yellowish border, and I thought maybe I had stepped on a tack or had a splinter. But it didn't go away. When I asked my doctor about it, he said, "Oh, that's a plantar wart. Just get something at the drugstore to put on it." So I did, but it got bigger, and when I asked another doctor about it a few years later, she agreed that it was a wart and told me to put duct tape on it to make it go away! Neither of them mentioned skin cancer, and I didn't think of it either—after all, I'm African-American, and it would never have occurred to me that I was at risk.
Over the next few years, that strange spot kept growing, and I started to feel like something was seriously wrong. My immune system was shot—I was always getting staph infections—plus it had become super painful to walk, and my foot was swollen. I love shoes, especially high heels, but I got to the point where all I could wear were ballet flats, and I'd go barefoot inside. Then, at the end of 2012, I went to urgent care for another staph infection, and also because I was in so much pain, I could barely walk. I showed the doctor my foot and he said, "This is no wart; it's some kind of ulceration." He sent me to a podiatrist, who thought it was a pressure sore and put me in a walking cast, but that didn't help. It hurt like crazy, so he finally did a biopsy.
A week later, I was home alone and got the call: It was basal cell carcinoma. I was hysterical—and angry. I had probably asked five doctors about it over the years, and no one had ever mentioned cancer.
Because my cancer had grown so much in that time, the surgery to remove it ended up damaging some of the nerves in my foot. For a long time, even walking on grass hurt; I still have some pain. I am a singer and pianist, and I couldn't play piano for over a year. I've just started wearing high heels again.
I haven't had a recurrence. But I still get mad when I think about all the years wasted before I was diagnosed. One thing I know: If you think something is wrong, be as tenacious as you have to be until someone takes you seriously.
My hairdresser became my hero
Julie Soriano, 46, a radiologic technologist in Smithtown, N.Y. Diagnosed with melanoma in 2013.
I couldn't see the mole on top of my head, but I could feel it because it was elevated and kind of squishy. My dermatologist wasn't worried about it, though. What I didn't realize was that, even if it was a harmless mole at the time, it could still change into cancer.
Luckily, I have been going to the same hairdresser, Heidi, for years; she would always try to work around the mole when she was parting or combing my hair. Then two years ago, she said, "You know, the skin around that mole is changing color—it's dark pink, brown and purple. I think you should get it checked out again."
I immediately went to a dermatologist, who did a biopsy. On Good Friday, the results came back: It was melanoma. I was at my job—I'm a CAT scan technologist at a hospital—and that turned out to be lucky. A radiologist I work closely with immediately called to make an appointment with a surgical oncologist he knew at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
When my husband and I met with the doctor, she said, "We're going to have to cut out a wide area, about the size of a woman's palm. You need to prepare your children because you're going to come home with your head completely bandaged." My twin daughters were 12, and my son was 15.
There was a plastic surgeon with the surgical oncologist in the operating room. Afterward the plastic surgeon told me that it had been too big an area to repair on the spot—they were going to have to put a balloon expander under the part of my scalp that still had hair and expand it over several months with saline solution. My head was lopsided for a while, but I just wore a hairpiece and hats to cover it. And Heidi let me come to her house to get my hair done in private so I wouldn't feel self-conscious.
You come out of something like this and you cherish things more. I think about all the milestones in my kids' lives that I might have missed if this hadn't been caught in time—my daughters made the varsity basketball team as freshmen; my son was homecoming king and volunteer of the year at a local hospital. I'm so happy and thankful that I've had the chance to celebrate with them.