Today, I have a smile on my face. I open the door, eager to leave the dermatologist office, and I am greeted by morning sun. I finally have a clean bill of health! No biopsies, no cuts, no burns, no stitches. Being proactive is paying off!
As a Southern California baby boomer, I was raised by parents who enjoyed time on the beach—in the ocean and relaxing poolside. Despite my fair skin, I equated being tan with being attractive and healthy. As a young adult, I was aware of sunscreen, but not diligent in using it.
I was in my 30’s when a doctor noticed that I had a growth on my upper arm. The doctor cut it out, stitched me up, I left his office and didn’t give my skin another thought. I ignored what should have been an opportunity to learn and take better care of my skin. To be proactive.
Fast forward twenty years. I noticed a tiny red spot near the tip of my nose. I treated it the way I used to treat things I didn’t like, I ignored it. My failure to act was a big mistake. Eventually, the spot bled, which led me to a dermatologist who prescribed a strong cream to apply over a few weeks. A year later the red spot returned, again bleeding. A different dermatologist took a biopsy, explained I had squamous cell carcinoma and referred me to a dermatologist/plastic surgeon’s office. The four-hour MOHS surgery on the tip of my nose was the wake-up call I needed to pay diligent attention to my skin.
A few years later, in my 60’s, I noticed a new small growth on the top of my left hand. Within a week I went to see my primary physician who referred me to a dermatologist. Again, the biopsy result was cancer. Similar to my nose surgery, the MOHS surgery on top of my hand was also in an area where there is little skin, resulting in a long healing time.
Then, last summer in 2020, I noticed a new small spot on my nose. I immediately called the dermatologist who saw me within days. He found two other spots on my face to biopsy, all three were cancers. Soon thereafter I had MOHS surgery on my nose and check.
Thanks to all of these spots and surgeries, I diligently check my skin for new growths all the time and take immediate action on any spots I believe are problematic. My wardrobe is also roughly 75% UPF 50+ from Coolibar. I wear long sleeve tops that also protect the tops of my hands and leggings, long pants or long skirts everywhere along with hats and face make-up with sunscreen. To me, it’s the same as getting the Covid-19 vaccine to make me feel more protected. Wearing Coolibar gives me confidence knowing my skin is better protected. Be proactive, not inactive.
Well, it’s been two years since my last Coolibar blog. So much has happened since then that I really don’t know where to begin. To refresh, my cancer journey started in May 2014. An ex-girlfriend found a suspicious spot under my right armpit and told me that I needed to get it checked. As many men typically do, I told her that I would take care of it in the fall. She said that was not an option and made an appointment for the next week. As it turns out, it was malignant melanoma. I will always be grateful to her for possibly saving my life. Since then I have been very vigilant about getting regular check-ups.
Well, cancer came back in February 2017. I had five cancer surgeries in four weeks on my face. The fifth surgery—which was supposed to take four hours—was extremely rare and difficult and ended up taking nine hours! It required 300+ stitches, took a chunk out my right ear, left me with partial face palsy and a right eyelid that couldn’t blink. The doctors had to take a few tendons out of my right leg and rewire the nerves in my face. After radiation and physical/occupational therapy, the hope was that one day the nerves would re-trigger, the face palsy would go away, and I would be able to blink again. Thanks to the miracle workers—doctors, nurses, therapists and staff—at Barnes/Wash University/Siteman I’m doing about as well as can be under the circumstances.
After that surgery, I went through seven rounds of chemo pills and one week of putting chemo ‘hell ointment’ all over my body in 2019 and 2020. Though it has been rough, I have persevered because of consistent check-ups and my three most prized possessions in life:
My faith. My families. My friends.
What else do I need? I’m so blessed to have the best family ever. They are my true currency. I have the greatest friends and a community that cares so much that they threw several fundraisers and a parade with 500 cars to help me pay my medical bills and other bills while I couldn’t work. I could never express enough appreciation and gratitude for the love, support, prayers and strength this community has shown me. They inspired me to get out of bed on mornings when I had nothing physically or emotionally in the tank. I didn’t want let them down.
I initially shared my story publicly with the hope of inspiring others to keep on keeping on. Throughout my life, I have witnessed family and friends battling like warriors when facing cancer, depression, other illnesses or the loss of loved ones. They inspired me and gave me the perfect blueprint on how to not let adversity bully me. You lose 100% of the time when you don’t battle.
I have had many people ask me how I remained so tough throughout all of this. As an Irishman, I have been in many scraps throughout my life but I don’t think that’s what they were referring to. I would always tell them that mental toughness is a lifestyle. You don’t need to talk or act tough. That’s actually a clear sign of insecurity. Authentic toughness is earned through your confidence, kindness, positivity and humbleness. It’s the ability to stay focused in the moment. Trust me, when getting ready for a cancer surgery or driving to another radiation appointment, or knowing you have another round of chemo ahead of you, mental toughness is so much more important than physical toughness. I’ve always been a believer in the motto “strength of body, power of mind”. Every scar tells a story.
Thank you Coolibar for the awesome UPF 50+ gear that allows me to protect myself outdoors while looking fashionable. I look forward to the next part of my journey and what lies ahead. I thank God every night for two things:
1. Making my reality bigger than all of my dreams.
For as long as I can remember, my mom has checked my skin for new or changed spots, even into adulthood she still will look at my arms or neck and check for changes. She found my very first ‘spot’ in a dressing room while I was trying on new school clothes for my 3rd grade year. It was a dark black mole on my shoulder that had suddenly popped up overnight it seemed. The doctor removed it months later. Thankfully, it was only an atypical mole with no sign of cancer.
In 2003, when my mother mentioned that she did not like a mole I had on my jaw/neck area, I brushed it off with, “it’s fine, mom. No, mom, it hasn’t changed”. At the time, I was a 31-year-old mother with an 18-month-old toddler and an elementary school-aged son. My husband was in the military and we had just moved to a new town, so I did not have time to go to the doctor and investigate a mole that was probably nothing.
Then, I found the photograph that changed everything. I was looking through a box of old photos and came across an image of me laughing with my head cocked back to the side. It wasn’t a great photo but for some reason it caught my attention. I looked at the side of my face and neck. There was no mole. I flipped the photo over and looked for the date. It taken was about 2 years prior. It seemed strange that the mole had grown so large in such a short amount of time. Perhaps my mom was right to be concerned.
I made an appointment with my doctor who sent me to a dermatologist to have it removed. I remember when he called to give me the results. I thought it was odd that he was calling me. No one ever called with results. Everything was always fine. He used the word melanoma and began talking about a referral to a MOHS office for another surgery. I recall telling my parents and my husband that it was no big deal. I had my second surgery and clean margins, then I’d have skin checks every 3 months for a year, followed by every 6 months for a year. I could do that. No big deal. It’s fine. Everything is fine.
I really believed that. I really thought it was all fine. And then—I saw the Grey’s Anatomy episode about Izzy being diagnosed with melanoma and a metastasis. Wait…this can kill me? An older woman at my church had a spot on her foot that wasn’t healing. She had surgery, it was melanoma that had metastasized and she died six months later. My dad was diagnosed with melanoma a year after me and had to have a lymph node removed. I was learning that everything was definitely NOT fine. This was and is a big deal.
This realization absolutely changed things for me. Like my mother, my drive to protect my children from skin cancer became much more important. We already knew that sunscreen was an important part of going outside, but now it was vital. I also started being aware of what time of day we should avoid being outside. We lived near the beach, so I became an early morning or evening beachgoer and always used an umbrella. When watching my kids play sports, I found shade or made my own. As my children grew, they knew that a sunburn was something they had to avoid. I expected them to take sun safety seriously. After all, their grandpa and their mom both had melanoma.
Most recently I’ve learned a lot more about sun-protective clothing through Polka Dot Mama and Coolibar. Anything I can add to my family’s routine to help keep them safe really helps me feel like they’re safe out in the sun.
What I want everyone else to learn from my story is to take it seriously! Never think that skin cancer is ‘no big deal’. Be diligent about your skin and listen to your friends, family, or even a stranger in the coffee line if they think something doesn’t look right. In my case my mother was always looking out for me and she hounded my dad about the mole on his arm which ended up being melanoma. Her skin checks likely saved our lives.
My other advice is to take care of yourself. I was a busy mom and I made the excuse that I didn’t have time to take care of myself. This is SO common in mothers. But please remember that you are always worth the care you give yourself—especially when it comes to your health. Early detection really can save your life when it comes to melanoma. Since my initial diagnosis, I have met so many other melanoma survivors. The one survivor that has inspired me the most is my friend, Tracy Callahan, of the Polka Dot Mama Melanoma Foundation. Her story is so different from mine, yet we have so much in common. She has taught me more about melanoma than anyone—how to live a full life with the diagnosis and how to make a difference in the world because of it. Education and information are key components to helping people recognize the need for sun safety and how to take care of their skin. Tracy does an amazing job both educating and providing free skin screenings. She is a living embodiment of taking a challenging personal journey and using it to positively impact the lives of others.
Part of me wasn’t surprised when the biopsy results came back positive. Of the three bumps I felt on my scalp and had checked, one was squamous cell carcinoma. When I got the diagnosis, I thought about all the things I loved to do outside in the sun. I loved to spend long weekends hiking in New York’s Hudson Valley. I went jogging and cycling multiple times a week, and I spent summers at the beach. My most memorable travels were always outdoor adventures, like hiking the Path of the Gods in Amalfi, Italy, the Grand Canyon, and the Torres del Paine in Patagonia. I even had an outdoor wedding!
I had always thought I was pretty good about applying sunblock (usually SPF 30) to protect my skin. What I realize now is that I have been completely ignoring my scalp. It makes me angry thinking about it. It all makes sense now. My hair has always been cut short—and it’s not particularly thick—which leaves my crown completely vulnerable to sun damage.
I’m not sure I consider myself to be a “Skin Cancer Warrior” per se, but I’ll admit to wanting to ‘attack’ this problem head-on. The good news in my diagnosis was that my cancer was considered ‘In situ’, meaning we caught it early enough. Regardless, I didn’t want to waste any time so I quickly scheduled my MOHS surgery with Dr. Vinelli in Morristown, NJ for June 9th, 2020 one month after the biopsy results.
The first thing I remember about that day was my conversation with the doctor. He told me that I had great skin for my age (50 at the time), but my scalp looked like “the skin of a 75-year-old”. Food for thought…
I sat and made small talk with the surgery staff as they clipped the hair off my crown. Then a large section of my scalp was shaved with a straight razor. I nervously joked about looking like a monk, and not leaving the house until my hair grew back. Then a sheath was draped over the sides of my head and face.
The surgery was done under local anesthetic, but I could hear snipping, scraping, and feel the dabbing of gauze and tugging of the skin while it was being sewn closed. I wondered what the site would look like when the surgery was done and thought about all the types of hats I would buy to cover the scar. The more tugging I felt, the tighter the skin on my head and face felt. It was a strange sensation…Was I inadvertently getting a facelift?
Then it was over. I was prescribed pain killers and an antibiotic cream and was told to remove the bandage the next morning. Additionally, I couldn’t exercise for at least two weeks and needed to avoid all strenuous activity. Hmm.
The next morning, my husband helped me remove the bandage and the look on his face said it all. We both had underestimated the amount of damage I had, and size of the incision needed to get it all.
Over the following months and with 2020 being what it was, I continued working from home while I healed. I took Zoom meetings and would carefully position the camera to be sure my coworkers couldn’t see the scar.
Eventually, I let my head tilt just enough and my boss saw the scar (and ‘monk cut’) and asked me what happened. As it turned out, he also had MOHS surgery on the bridge of his nose. We compared notes and lamented, saying things like, “If we could only go back and do things differently”.
We talked about how we were dealing with our diagnosis. He’d started staying out of the sun entirely while I was hiding under hats. He doesn’t go to the beach anymore and I’ve started sitting under umbrellas and wearing sun shirts. We each have different approaches to how we’re handling our brush with skin cancer. Both of us are fully aware that we’re even more susceptible to more damage. I think the most important thing is that we have both changed our habits and are in a position to help others.
As ‘skin cancer warriors’ we can tell people what happened. Not to scare them—or gross them out. But we get to share our stories with one another, and with everyone around us because this experience is entirely preventable. If we can teach people to protect their scalp, shield their faces, wear sunblock and sun-protective clothing, fewer and fewer people will experience this cancer. For that I’m grateful.
We’ve done it! Our Spring 2021 catalog is here and it’s our first ever to feature real-world people who are tackling skin cancer every day—they are warriors! In the past, we’ve been honored to include well-known warriors like Norah O’Donnell and Holly Rowe, as well as amazing professional models who have survived skin cancer, like Bradly Tomberlin. But this is the first time you’ll see everyday people within the greater skin cancer community represented throughout our catalog pages.
It all started with a basic idea – celebrate skin cancer warriors and inspire others to dress sun-safe. But as is the case with most of our community outreach, it quickly evolved into something more. Every one of our real-world models lit up the camera with their hope, energy and passion for our shared mission. And their willingness to share their stories and support each other was just incredible!
Each individual who participated in our Spring 2021 catalog has written a blog detailing their unique experience with skin cancer. We have stories from warriors and the people supporting them…professionals, advocates, and caregivers. Everyone came together to help our first warrior-dedicated catalog shine. Based on our past experience, we were not surprised in the least. If our mission has taught us one thing, it is that skin cancer warriors and advocates can move mountains. And if you spend enough time in their presence, you’ll realize that you can too.
In our Spring 2021 catalog you will find….
Warriors currently taking on skin cancer or living with other sun-sensitivities
Survivors who are NED (No Evidence of Disease) or in remission
Care givers supporting family or friends going through a diagnosis
Advocates leading the charge to protect and prevent
Medical Providers dedicating their time to keeping everyone safe
As you flip the pages of the catalog and go online and read their stories, we hope you’ll be as inspired as we were. And we welcome your help! If you, your family, or friends are interested in participating in our next catalog or blog please don’t hesitate to reach out. Every story, and every warrior makes a difference.
We are BEYOND grateful for our community’s involvement in our mission and everyone’s ongoing efforts to combat skin cancer. Every day we’re dedicated to keeping yours safe.
“We’re going to keep stepping up and doing our part to prevent skin cancer through early detection. When it comes to making a difference, it’s all about showing up.”
I went to the beach with my children for a summer holiday in 2018. When we returned home, I noticed a bump near my nose. My first thought was, “A pimple? At this age? I better ramp up my face care routine”. After a week of scrubbing, and trying other blemish remedies, the bump was still there. It was time to see a dermatologist.
The ensuing (my first ever) appointment with a dermatologist changed my life. She started out by asking some background questions.
Doctor: What’s your personal skin history?
Me: Fair skinned guy that grew up in Florida during the 80’s.
Doctor: What was your SPF use while growing up?
Me: Cocoa butter and tanning oil.
Doctor: What is your family skin history.
Me: Older brother with multiple skin cancers including melanoma.
Doctor: Arches her eyebrow and responds… Let’s take a look.
Thirty seconds later…
Doctor: You have skin cancer.
I remember thinking, “Wow, she gets right to it”. But then my years of military training kicked in and my thoughts switched to, “OK, how do we take care of this?” She walked me through my options:
Measure it and see if it grows
Biopsy it and find out what it is
I asked, “How is number 1 even an option?” Apparently, it’s not, but they’ve gotten feedback that people liked to have options for treatment, so they added number 1. I had the sense to choose to cut it off.
When the pathology report came back, I was stunned. I had malignant cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma. Years later, I’ve learned that there are much more severe and aggressive types of cancer that are more difficult to treat. But in that moment, I was terrified. I had cancer. There is a common theme in conversations I’ve had with others about their own cancer experiences: the moment when you learn you have cancer is as significant an emotional event as you will ever have.
So what now? I lived in the DC area, so I was sent to Walter Reed Medical Center to undergo MOHS surgery to remove the cancer. The fantastic team there got all of it. It was the most amazing news I think I’ve ever heard. And just like that, my cancer story shifted from that of a patient to a survivor.
My cancer story is a positive one. I know full well it could have been far worse, but I had paid attention to changes in my skin and I had access to health care. Those two things made all the difference. I began to wonder about those that aren’t aware of the importance of prevention and self-exams, and who don’t have access to health care. Having survived skin cancer because of early detection, I set out to find a way to do something about it.
The fact that really caught my attention was this…
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in America, but it is also the most treatable, with early detection.
Awesome…then why don’t we just detect it early for heaven’s sake? If the cure for skin cancer is to find it early, then why do we do vision checks every year but not skin checks? Why is a skin screening a C priority in peoples’ lives, instead of an A priority? I knew there had to be a way to get educated eyes looking at more people’s skin. I had a conversation with an artist friend that helped me switch the lights on and find an answer.
I had approached Pat McGee, a singer/songwriter/friend of more than 20 years, about playing a one-year cancer free show for me and some friends. Our initial conversation was pretty…real.
Me: What do you think Pat?
Pat: I think it sounds remarkably self-indulgent.
Me: What if we raised money at the show and gave it to a charity.
Pat: Getting better.
A friend in the medical philanthropy world jumped in with the idea of doing multiple concerts to raise money. LIGHT BULB! The three of us outlined a plan for an organization that would focus on skin cancer awareness AND would get people started by giving them much-needed free screenings. We Rock Cancer was born.
That one-year cancer free concert morphed into a We Rock Cancer launch event where half the attendees opted to be screened, and half of those that were screened had issues identified that required a dermatologist follow up or biopsy. We were amazed. We had found a way to enable early detection and provide people with the information they needed to take action in a timely manner. All while they were attending a rock concert. At the end of the event, one of our volunteer dermatologists observed:
“You guys have found a way to make skin cancer screenings cool!”
Since that night, a team of amazing volunteers has come together to grow our mission capability and our reach. We immediately identified a mission goal to conduct free screenings for those that work in sun-intense occupations—landscapers, construction workers, lifeguards, golf course workers, etc. We also started an outreach program to provide screenings focused on musicians and those in the music industry. The artists and techs that are the key to our public engagement often have extremely limited access to health care.
We also started a Youth Ambassador Program, so that we could help students and young adults be the messengers of sun safety in their school and athletic team environments. We provide them with information and checklists to identify opportunities to improve sun safety and to work with organization leaders to make improvements. Getting this information to young people at an age when they are first making decisions on their own regarding sun safety is essential to successfully prevent future skin cancers.
What’s next? We are gratified that our message is resonating with those that realize spending a few dollars on prevention and early detection is the key to avoiding the dangers and expenses that come with skin cancer. We’re going to keep stepping up and doing our part to prevent skin cancer through early detection. When it comes to making a difference, it’s all about showing up. We’re grateful that our efforts garnered the attention of Coolibar. We’re in this mission together and are so grateful that they continue to show up for non-profits like us. We look forward to sharing their support with our community!
Warriors Advocate for Skin Cancer Prevention and Protection During a Pandemic
Coolibar launched This is Brave in 2018 when a young girl stepped up and reminded us all of the importance of advocating for and supporting individuals with skin cancer. When Quinn told her brother Graham to Be Brave, she was reminding us all that we can do this! We can battle through and no matter what the outcome might be, we’re better when we can Be Brave together.
In 2020, the third year of our This is Brave campaign and first year as the Official Apparel Partner of the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF), our mission remains the same but the need for support is even greater. In the past few months, the world has shifted significantly in terms of patient care, research funding, and non-profit outreach. Key fundraising events like Miles for Melanoma have been postponed, and we’re working with the MRF and our community to find ways to continue funding life-saving research, and support patients and advocates across the country.
One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime whether there is a pandemic or not. #CancerHasNoCurve. The good news, the MRF and the greater melanoma community continues to be strong and active. Patients and advocates have done everything from taking the message of prevention and protection cross-country, to telling a neighbor to care for their skin and get checked. You are amazing. Everything you’re doing counts!
A lot will change forever in 2020, but the need for skin cancer prevention and protection will not. If you’re able, we’re asking you to support skin cancer awareness and the MRF this May, Melanoma Awareness Month. Here is how you can help:
Read the awe-inspiring stories of our Brave warriors and share them with your friends and family. Awareness can save lives!
Consider donating to the MRF. They’ve created wonderful virtual programs to ensure that the funding for research and education remains strong.
Purchase a 2020 This is Brave UPF 50+ T-Shirt for yourself or send it to someone as a sun-safe gift for a cause. The proceeds go directly to the MRF.
Thank you for all that you do and remember…together we can BE BRAVE!
Some of the most common places to be diagnosed with skin cancer – face, scalp, and ears – are located on your head… So choosing to wear a hat, especially one that is UPF 50+, just makes sense. The bigger challenge is trying to figure out when it is most crucial to have one on your noggin.
Reading a Good Book on the Beach
Whether it’s the ocean or poolside, having your favorite read
teamed up with a wide-brim hat is the duo you’ve been looking for. Spend more
time getting into that New York Bestseller and less time worried about the sun.
Hitting Up the Country Club
Have a membership at the local country club? Hours of direct sunlight on the golf course or tennis courts adds up and can be detrimental to your skin health. With the reapplication of sunscreen and a good hat on your head, you should comfortably be able to play 18 holes unscathed by the sun.
Fishing on the Lake
Summer is all about going up to the cabin, taking the boat
out and taking advantage of the good weather. For the big fishers out there
that just love being on the water and lose track of time easily, a hat with
extended coverage is vital because of the straight hours of direct sunlight and
the UV rays reflecting off the water.
Running Errands Around Town
It’s your day off and it has to be spent buying groceries,
stopping by the bank, picking up the kids from school, going to the dentist’s
office and countless other things on your agenda. With all that scheduled for
your day, the accumulated UV rays add up quickly!
Pro tip: Keep a packable sun hat in your car or purse to always be ready for the sun.
Paired with the Perfect Outfit
A very underrated piece of an outfit that can really bring the whole look together is a well-styled hat. There may be no better time to have a perfectly selected wide-brim hat than for a Kentucky Derby party or event!
If you are struggling to find the right one, our team has designed a guide to help you find the perfect hat that works with your face shape.
Taking the Dog for a Walk
Our furry companions need their exercise too, it’s an important part of being a pet owner. With that being said, typically, you’re taking the dog out for a little stroll during the day while UV rays are present. It shouldn’t be a very time-intensive chore to get prepped for a walk! Simply apply a little SPF 30+ sunscreen and a hat… and voilà!
Enjoying the Great Outdoors
This one is for you adventure seekers that love camping in the woods and exploring nature! If you’re the weekend warrior that joins every hiking group they can, you need a great sun hat paired with some long sleeves.
Regardless of the activity, you’re doing and the style you choose, make sure to get in the habit of wearing sunscreen on your face with your hat to help lessen the chances of extreme sun exposure even when wearing a hat .
We were as disappointed as you are to find this out. In fact, the common forms we develop are what also affect them – melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. Although most dog breeds are at risk, Jill Abraham, a board-certified veterinary dermatologist in New York City, told the Skin Cancer Foundation that the ones with “light-colored, short coats and less hair on the belly” are the most vulnerable. Before you start slathering sunscreen on your dog (Yes, you can put sunscreen on a dog), there are a few tips to help your furry companion live a safer life in the sun.
Limit Sun Exposure
Like us, dogs can get sunburned. Ever notice when a dog’s skin looks a little red after coming back inside? Sunburn. We all know how much they love laying out in the backyard sunbathing in the grass, but limiting the amount of time they have in direct sunlight during the strongest hours (between 10am and 4pm) is crucial. Helping encourage them to shady areas is a very good compromise to beating the sun.
A dog’s skin can be damaged by the sun just like our own, so they require the same protection against the development of sunburn and skin cancer.
Richard Goldstein, DVM and Chief Medical Officer of the Animal Medical Center (PetMD)
Here’s a video from Banfield Pet Hospital to cover the rest of the important basics to know about sunscreen and dogs:
Sun Protective Clothing
Hear us out on this one. For the pets with no escape from the sun, you could use some of your older UPF 50+ tops and wrap it around them or even see if it fits without too much struggle. It might sound a little ridiculous, but even Dr. Abraham thinks it’s a viable option. And to be honest, it is always cute to see a dog running around in a t-shirt.
When it comes to our loyal buddies, keeping them safe is a no brainer! One of the biggest final tips on dog skincare is just building up the consciousness of knowing when your dog is receiving too much sun. Now get out there, grab a Frisbee and enjoy a sun-safe life with your loving, furry best friend.