I come from a generation where we never thought much about the risks of skin cancer from over exposure to the sun. I cringe now to think of the days I spent as a teen basting my body with baby oil and then laying out to fry in the sun like Kentucky fried chicken. This was a sure fire recipe for skin damage or worse. But back then we didn't know what we know now. This was how we tanned but more often than not, instead of tanning, I would repeat the process of burning and peeling. Despite my pain I would continue this ritual each summer.
Never thought much about skin cancer until a friend of mine told me a horrifying story. My friend had a younger brother who was getting ready for work and was combing his hair. The teeth of the comb raked too hard on his scalp and he felt blood dripping down his forehead. There was a mole on his scalp that his hair was covering which was now bleeding. He did not know he had skin cancer. He had caught it too late and the cancer had already spread. My friend's brother ended up dying.
The really sad part of this story is that my friend's brother's death could have been easily prevented. The American Cancer Society tells us that "For localized melanoma, the 5-year survival rate is 99%; survival rates for regional and distant stage diseases are 65% and 16%, respectively. About 80% of melanomas are diagnosed at a localized stage." Translated, this means if you catch skin cancer in its early stages there is an extremely high rate for survival.
After telling me the story of how his brother died he gave me two pieces of advice which I have listened to which has undoubtedly saved my life. He told me to check my moles regularly for any changes and to see a dermatologist at least yearly. Our Doctor Berman tells us here how to check our "Moles, and Other Precancerous Lesions." I will be writing more about moles in subsequent posts so stay tuned.
One of the problems with detecting skin cancer early is that many of us are not checking our skin or moles for changes nor are we seeking the guidance from a doctor about potentially deadly skin changes. A 2008 research study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology showed that only 8% of surveyed U.S. workers had a skin exam in the previous 12 months. Although skin cancer is one of the more common cancers people are not being screened for this.
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that while it is good to get your skin checked during your annual physical exam with your general practitioner, it is probably best to see a dermatologist to get a thorough screening for any potential risks for skin cancer. In an article entitled, "Three Point Check List of Dermoscopy. A new screening method for early detection of melanoma" the author suggests that GP's "get it right" only 60% of the time, meaning that they sometimes have difficulty with identifying pre-cancerous or cancerous skin growths and moles.
From my own experience, unless I tell my general practitioner that I am worried about a particular mole or problem with my skin they don't do much more than a quick scan for any skin changes or growths. Whereas when I go to my dermatologist, she checks every inch of my body including skin covered by hair specifically looking for any skin changes suspicious for skin cancer.
I can't stress enough how important it is to make a routine annual visit to a dermatologist for a full body skin screening for skin cancer. Over the years I have had several moles which needed to be removed which were in various stages of dysplasia and were precancerous. I feel fortunate that my dermatologist had caught these in time. Despite checking my skin regularly I did not know that these moles were potential problems and neither did my regular doctor.
The American Cancer society reports that 12,000 people each year die of skin cancer. This is such a tragedy considering how treatable this is if you catch it early. Please do schedule an appointment with a certified Dermatologist for an annual skin screening. If you need help to locate a dermatologist in your area, The American Academy of Dermatology has a "Find a Dermatologist" page to help you.
And now it is your turn. How many of you see a dermatologist on an annual basis? How many of you check your skin regularly for changes to moles or other indicators of possible skin cancer? Do you have any stories of how early detection for skin cancer has saved your life? Do share your experiences here. You will help others in the process.
LeBlanc WG, Vidal L, Kirsner RS, Lee DJ, Caban-Martinez AJ, McCollister KE, Arheart KL, Chung-Bridges K, Christ S, Clark J 3rd, Lewis JE, Davila EP, Rouhani P, Fleming LE. "Reported skin cancer screening of US adult workers." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology July 2008 59:55-63. 16 July 2008
Soyer P et al . Three Point Check List of Dermoscopy. A new screening method for early detection ofmelanoma. Dermatology 2004;208:27-31