I don't think of myself as a cancer survivor...
but I am.
Ten years ago this past April, I found a very big mole on the back of my thigh while I was putting on some lotion. I was 24 years old and living by myself for the first time ever. I was dating the man of my dreams who is now my husband, teaching and playing flute, and living a happy and fulfilled life. I was not thinking about skin cancer.
Fortunately, I knew enough to get that big mole checked out. I had just gotten health insurance through my employer the previous February, so I went to a doctor (I didn't really have a personal doctor because I had not been to a doctor since I graduated from grad school), and he shaved it off and sent it to the lab, and I didn't think about it again.
Until the doctor called me and told me to come in. I knew, even though they didn't tell me why.
I had skin cancer. Malignant melanoma. The most deadly kind of skin cancer. The kind that is responsible for 75% of all skin cancer deaths.
I went to a whirlwind of doctors appointments: the surgeon, the oncologist, my doctor. I was scheduled for surgery on the back of my leg to remove more of the tissue surrounding the mole.
A month later I had my surgery, and no more melanoma was found in the surrounding tissue. I needed no more treatment because we had caught the cancer before it spread. Thank God.
Sometimes I wonder why it happened to me. Now I think I know. It happened to me so it doesn't have to happen to other people. This is not an old-person's cancer. It is a cancer that attacks people in the vibrancy of life. And it is a cancer that can be, for the most part, prevented.
Here are some facts about melanoma:
- Malignant Melanoma is increasing faster than any other cancer.
- One person dies from Melanoma every hour.
- New York is ranked the 4th highest in the nation with Melanoma Cancer, after California, Florida and Texas.
- Past prevalence rates of individuals diagnosed with Melanoma were, 1/1500. When CCMAC was founded in 1999 the rates were 1/75. The American Academy of Dermatology current rate is 1/67 as of 2003.
- Most Prevalent Cancer among women between the agesof 25 - 29.
- Second most prevalent cancer after Breast Cancer among woman ages 30-34.
- Higher incidence in men than in women.
What can you do to prevent all types of skin cancer, including melanoma?
Know the risk factors (if you are a triathlete, you have at least one of these!):
- Unusual moles (dysplastic nevi)
- Several moles (more than 50)
- Exposure to natural sunlight
- Exposure to artificial ultraviolet light (tanning booth)
- Family or personal history of melanoma
- Severe sunburns
- Being Caucasian and older than 20 years of age
- Red or blond hair
- Weakened immune system
- White or light-colored skin and freckles
- Blue eyes
- Personal history of skin cancer
- Family history of dysplastic nevi or melanoma.
(For the record, before I was diagnosed with melanoma I had 9 of those risk factors.)
Reduce Exposure to UV Radiation:
- Use sunscreen with at least SPF 30.
- Reapply sunscreen if you are in the sun for more than 1.5 hours.
- Wear clothing that protects you from the sun.
- Try to limit exposure to midday sun (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
I now have a clean bill of health (although I still can't get life insurance coverage!). I see my dermatologist at least twice a year for a full body skin check. I have had many pre-cancerous moles removed, but not a single one has been malignant. I am vigilant about sunscreen for myself and my family, and I have made it my mission to remind my friends, not so subtly, that they need sunscreen too.
Please use sunscreen when you are out training and racing and living every day life. Please tell your friends and family to use sunscreen. A tan might be beautiful, but it can also be deadly.