Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Please get checked

TLDR: I had two places on my back biopsied in August during my annual screening with my dermatologist. One was diagnosed as melanoma. I don’t fit the typical profile, which goes to show even if you don’t either, you should get a skin cancer check every year. Also, while I am generally very private about my health, if my story motivates even one person to start getting checked, then it’s worth feeling a little uncomfortable about sharing this outside my immediate family.

Ever had a sunburn?

Ever?

Or do you have moles?

Then you should get an annual skin cancer screening by a dermatologist.

I’ve been getting screened every year since we moved back from Boston. Well actually, I got screened for the first time at 34 when one of my absolute favorite college professors, one who had a huge positive impact on me, died from melanoma. Because of his illness, I read up on melanoma and learned that your risk goes up for every sunburn you’ve had (it’s cumulative and there are no backsies on that kind of skin damage); you also have a higher risk if you have blue eyes, fair skin, fair hair and burn easily. I don’t fit that last bit at all, so I’ll be honest and tell you I truly never thought I would end up with melanoma. I figured it would be my red-headed husband who only burns, not me. Clearly I was wrong.

When I had my first ever scan at 34, everything looked fine. To be honest, I put the screenings on a back burner and didn’t bother again until 2013 when we moved back to Kansas. Since then, I’ve had something biopsied every single year:
  • 2013—a mole on my hip (no issues)
  • 2014—a spot near my collar bone (no issues)
  • 2015—a spot on my left arm (no issues)
  • 2016—a spot on the same arm but higher up (no issues)
On August 9 this year, my dermatologist biopsied two moles on my back. One scrape was about the size of a dime, and the other was more like a quarter. Both were above my bra line and in toward my spine. On August 17, my doctor called and let me know that the bigger biopsy came back as melanoma, stage 0 in situ. I was scheduled for outpatient surgery on August 24.

I’m lucky. Because I get these screens every year, my dermatologist is confident the change occurred in the last 12 months. And because we caught it early, he did what’s called a wide local excision and took a football shaped section of skin, then stitched me up. The incision is nearly three inches long, mostly parallel to my spine and sort of on my spine. I think this incision is going to end up as less of a scar than the original scrape biopsy was. If you're curious, the reason the excision is football shaped is so that when the edges are pulled together, the incision lies flat rather than puckering.

Last Friday, I got the pathology report; the margins of the removed tissue came back clear. This is good news and means my doctor got everything plus a bit to spare. You want clean margins because this particular cancer can be truly nasty when it grows down below the skin level. That’s when it often turns into the fast spreading killer kind of cancer, and that’s what happened to my professor.

Going forward, I will have screenings every six months for the next five years. If I don’t develop any more melanoma, then I will go back to annual screenings. But I’m realistic—since my body has done this once, I’ve got an increased risk (8 to 15 times according to this site and also my dermatologist) that it will happen again. As he pointed out, now we know my body will grow melanoma. Catching them really early will be the key to me continuing to survive this nasty cancer.

Please get checked. If I weren’t getting checked, then my diagnosis wouldn’t be nearly so positive.

2 comments:

Paula said...

Thanks for sharing - so, so glad your reports have shown your proactive checks are keeping you healthy! Love you!

Deb Runs said...

I'm so glad you found your melanoma early through regular full body checks with your dermatologist. That's our best defense in fighting this disease.