Archives

Skin Diaries

My Motto: Porcelain is Pretty

I was diagnosed with melanoma on my right arm at 26 years old. At the time, I was about to graduate as a Physician Assistant. I couldn’t believe it! As I was leaving my appointment, I pulled over the car and cried. I was about to start a career in medicine and I was getting married! How did I get skin cancer? I was terrified. 

Luckily, my melanoma was superficial, Stage 1, so it could be surgically removed without significant damage or scaring. I knew it could have been worse. Much worse. Melanoma is the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 25-30, and the second leading cause of cancer death in women ages 30-35. I was 26, and about to be a licensed medical professional and I was a part of a cancer statistic.

The one thing that saved me was my knowledge of medicine. I knew enough to go in and get a skin check when I noticed something was off. Early detection makes a big difference in someone’s diagnosis. Finding out at 26 that I had cancer also helped me reevaluate my relationship with the sun. I was born and raised in sunny Florida and loved being outside and sunbathing by the pool when I was younger. I rarely used sunblock because I tanned easily and therefore assumed I wasn’t susceptible to skin cancer.

It took my diagnosis and surgery to finally change my sun habits. It happened immediately. I started investing in sun protective clothing. I kept accessories like hats, sunglasses and umbrellas with me so I’d never be without shade or protection. I started wearing an SPF of at least 30 on my face and lips daily. I stopped all tanning right away, no tanning beds or sunbathing. And I do my best to avoid sun exposure between 10am – 2pm.

After my diagnosis, I also started working as a Dermatology PA. It is my job to educate, evaluate, diagnose and treat patients with skin cancer. The most rewarding part of my job is being able to empathize and understand what my patients are going through. Getting a cancer diagnosis is hard. I’ve been there! But thanks to that diagnosis I’m able to help and support others.

For some it can seem daunting to kick off a sun-safe lifestyle. But, there are small but significant things you can seamlessly weave into your daily routine.

  1. Keep a hat, umbrella and UPF 50+ elbow-length gloves in your car so you can grab extra protection when you need it.
  2. Switch out your lotions and chapsticks to make sure they have an SPF of 30+ 
  3. STOP tanning, whether it’s in a salon or at the beach. Just stop! Embrace your natural skin tone! Porcelain is pretty!
  4. Get yourself some quality sun protective clothing for sunny days. It’s made to block UVA/UVB rays while keeping you cooler out in the sun.

In addition to helping avoid skin cancer, all of these steps will help prevent early aging in your skin. If you ask any medical provider in a dermatology clinic what their #1 secret is to beautiful, healthy skin, we would say sun protection! 

Source: Melanoma Research Foundation

No Comments
Skin Diaries

25-Year Battle With Melanoma Leaves Warrior ‘Fortunate’

My personal journey with melanoma began long before my first skin cancer diagnosis. I grew up near the Gulf Coast beaches of Florida in the 1960s and 1970s. A time when sun protection consisted of a floppy hat, a white t-shirt, and suntan lotion. Several trips to the beach ended with red, raw shoulders and a burned nose. I have light-brown hair, blue eyes, and a seemingly infinite number of freckles, moles, and skin blemishes. This places me in the high-risk category for skin cancer. Several years ago, a dermatologist told me that with my skin type, I should have grown up in Minnesota, not in Florida.

In the 1980s and early 90s, I continued to abuse my skin. Like many young people in those days, I worshipped the sun and spent too many weekends out by the pool baking in the early afternoon heat. I never used enough sunscreen and, when I did use it, I certainly never thought about re-application. In addition, I fell into the trap of occasionally using tanning beds to get a base tan.

In the mid-1990s, I decided to have a mole on my right shoulder checked out. A biopsy revealed that I had melanoma in situ. That decision in 1995 probably saved my life. It also started the next phase of my journey. From 1995 to today, I’ve had 8 melanomas – ranging from in situ to Stages I and II – diagnosed and removed. I also had a basal cell carcinoma removed from my upper left cheek. (You can still see the small divot in my face.) For the next ten or so years, I routinely visited dermatologists and general surgeons. I took precautions – putting on sunscreen and wearing a hat – but by then the damage to my skin was done.

A major twist in my journey occurred in 2011 when a previously biopsied lesion tested malignant, and I underwent immediate surgery to remove a Stage IIC tumor along with a tennis ball-sized area of surrounding tissue from my upper back. The surgery included an extensive skin graft and the removal of several sentinel lymph nodes from my neck (which, thankfully, were clear). I was in physical therapy for 6 months, and I still have stiffness in my back and limited range of motion. Years later, the hole in my back – as I call it – is very ugly and the scar tissue still tender. As my plastic surgeon once joked, I wasn’t going shirtless to the beach any longer.

On July 24th, 2013, another major turn in my journey happened when a PET scan revealed that melanoma had spread to my lungs. The likely source of the metastases was the malignant tumor removed in 2011. The oncologists believed that a tiny bit of melanoma escaped from the primary site via my bloodstream. I was told that if the cancer didn’t respond to treatment that I would likely die in 9 to 12 months. Naturally, I was in shock as I left the clinic that day. It was completely surreal.

Even with a metastatic melanoma diagnosis, however, I was fortunate. Following my 2011 surgery, protocol dictated that I would be scanned every three to six months for the rest of my life. So, I now have a permanent oncologist along with new dermatologists who understand my circumstances and are diligent in their skin exams. Anything in question is immediately biopsied.

A final twist to my journey is based on simple genetics. My metastatic melanoma is somewhat atypical. Following the 2013 diagnosis, two separate labs confirmed that my cancer has a c-Kit mutation, which is found in less than 7 percent of all melanoma patients. This rare mutation, however, responds well to a specific oral chemotherapy drug. Once I began taking the drug, some of my tumors actually shrank.

It sounds strange to say that I am fortunate, but I am. It is 2019 and I am still here to continue this journey. The metastases in my lungs remain relatively small and stable. In the past six years, I’ve been able to watch both of my children graduate from high school and college. My wife and I travel extensively and, yes, we go to the beach or the mountains every year. I still garden every spring. I will not let skin cancer keep from doing the things I love!

Finally, I use my circumstances to reach out to others with this dreadful disease and to advocate for more skin cancer research. In addition, I volunteer my time with national skin cancer organizations and local cancer charities. I maintain a blog that details my journey (from 2013 to the present): In Difficulty Lies Opportunity. My present journey continues with curves and bumps, but I now appreciate the small things in life that truly mean the most.

4 Comments
Show Buttons
Hide Buttons