Why do I get skin cancer so often? In part, I'm genetically pre-disposed. My ancestors were northern Europeans from Scotland and Poland, which means they were fair skinned and likely to burn if they spent too much time in the sun. I'm the same way. I freckle first, especially on my face. But then the burn sets in. It takes my skin a very long time to tan, but I can burn in half an hour.
Apart from my DNA, I'm getting skin cancer now because I spent so much time tanning and burning when I was a teenager and young adult. We thought sun tans made us look "cool" (our word for "hot" in those days). Getting a tan in the summer was as important to us as eating ice cream or going to camp. We would slather our bodies with baby oil to "speed the burn" then make sure we were out in the sun during the most intense hours of the day – 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. We wouldn't come in until our skin was so red it seemed radioactive. It seems ridiculous now, but it was what we did then, when no one ever talked about skin cancer. (These burned feet and other photos of sun burn are on Ellen Degeneres' website.I don't have photos of me all burned up as a kid.)
My first skin cancer showed up when I was 38 years old. It was right in the corner of my left eyelid (the picture to the right is not my eye, but that bubble you see below this eye is exactly what mine looked like). My eye had to be anesthetized, and then the cancer was cut off. I walked around for about a week with some unsightly stitches on my face before the scar healed. Soon after, a much larger skin cancer showed up on my chest, right below my collar bone. This surgery was bigger and left a scar about an inch long. Pretty soon, every couple of years, another skin cancer would show up – on my shoulders, my hands, my back, my stomach. Often, my dermatologist could simply freeze the cancer and kill the cells. But recently, a new skin cancer appeared on my upper chest. This one was the most serious of all and required MOHS surgery, a more complicated procedure in which the doctor must cut deeply into the skin and all around the cancer to make sure the entire cancer is removed. It took a week for the incision to scab over, and a few months for the red swelling around the scar to subside.
I've become an expert at looking for the early signs of basal cell skin cancer, the kind of cancer I get and that is both the most common and the least dangerous form of skin cancer. I've only ever had basal cell skin cancer, not the more dangerous squamos cell cancer or the deadly melanoma. But basal cell can turn into melanoma if you don't catch it quickly enough. I also get a check-up every six months, just in case new cancers are in progress. I take a lot of precautions these days to protect my skin, but there's not much I can do about the damage that's already been done.
I'm sharing my story with you in the hopes that you will take the threat of sun-related skin cancer seriously. Keep an eye out for it, treat it as soon as you find it, and meanwhile, stay out of the sun!
For more information, visit The Skin Cancer Foundation.
Read about Sun Smart Skin Care here.
Above basal cell skin cancer photo is from About.com.