Cancer Survivor Spotlight Part VII
My family genetics did not lend itself to smooth, clear, beautiful skin. Consequently as a teenager I suffered from severe acne. Unfortunately there was not an understanding of, nor treatments that were successful back in the age of the dinosaurs which was when I was a teenager. I have vivid memories of my mother taking me to our family MD where I was told to wash my face with soap and water two or three times a day (during school lunch. Yeah, right!), stay away from French fries (double yeah, right!) and don't eat any chocolate (triple, yeah, right!) OK, now this man had my attention and a diet of no chocolate or Frenchfries was not an acceptable cure for acne as far as I was concerned at 14 years of age.
Little did I know that the future would hold that I was right and he was wrong! It was not until I sought help from a dermatologist for my own teenage children that I learned how far research had advanced into the treatment of skin disorders. Gone was the admonition to stay away from chocolate and French fries and here to stay was the admonition to be sure that our bodies had proper nutrition and were healthy. Healthy bodies equaled healthy skin. Lots of topical applications became available to my children that helped with healthy skin; face washes, creams, body wash etc. But the best of the best was an oral prescription called accutane. The drug, which was not without its side effects, had an amazing effect on producing beautiful, clear skin.
That was the prelude to my understanding of our body's protective layer. I am so grateful for an awesome doctor who disseminated information along with treating the disorders. Had it not been for his ability to communicate with his patients, I might not have recognized my skin cancer. His concern was not just for his patients (my children) but for the entire family that existed beyond the teenagers that he was treating.
Through the information I received from him and his office staff I became concerned when a spot appeared under my left eye that was like an enlarged pore that oozed at times. It would heal as a flat scar that was quite firm to touch but would open often as I washed my face. I watched this for about a month and then called for an appointment. It was not a surprise to me when his examination rendered the verdict of skin cancer; Basal cell carcinoma. I knew from the information he had given me previously that this was not a "scary" type of cancer and yet left untreated could be dangerous still.
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It usually occurs on areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun often (I'd never worn a hat in my whole life). This cancer often appears as a small raised bump that has a smooth, pearly appearance or another type will appear, as mine did, as a scar that is flat and firm to the touch. Basal cell cancer can spread to the tissue around it but does not usually spread to other parts of the body.
It was about this same period of time that my Father began having treatment for Squamous cell carcinoma on his lips. This type of skin cancer occurs on areas of the skin that are exposed to a lot of sun such as ears, lower lip, and the back of the hands. Dad's cancer appeared as a firm red bump but became quite scaly and would bleed. This type of tumor can spread to nearby lymph nodes and needs to be treated quickly.
Dad has through the last few years had reoccurring bouts of Squamous cell cancer on different areas of his lip. He is an avid golfer at age 84 and spends half his week on the course (perhaps that is an exaggeration). His exposure to the sun and the consequent skin cancer has prompted him to load on the lip balm en mass when he golfs. He always wears a hat.
There are several treatments for nonmelanoma skin cancer. My cancer was extracted by simple excision: The tumor is cut from the skin along with some of the normal skin around it. My doctor was not only a dermatologist but also a plastic surgeon and there is very little evidence of this excision. Treatment is decided on by the stage of the cancer.
Dad's cancer was treated by cryosurgery; A treatment that uses an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormalities. My second tumor was removed by electrodesiccaton and curettage: the tumor is cut from the skin with a spoon shaped tool and then a needle-like electrode is used to treat the area with an electric current that destroys the cells and stops the bleeding.
My visits to Dr. "P" are consistent because it is likely that tumors will reoccur. He has advised me that yearly check-ups are vital and that self examination is essential. Dad's visits to his doctor are much more frequent because Squamous cell carcinoma can spread more quickly.
"Although these two types of skin cancer are the most malignancies, they account for less than 0.1 percent of patient deaths due to cancer. Both of these cancer are more likely to occur in individuals of light complexion who have had significant exposure to sunlight." (NCI, cancer.gov)
The following risk factors are taken from the National Cancer Institutes web page for your information:
Being exposed to a lot of natural or artificial sunlight; Having a fair complexion (blond or red hair, fair skin, green or blue eyes, history of freckling); Having scars or burns on the skin; Being exposed to arsenic; Having chronic skin inflammation or skin ulcers; Being treated with radiation; Taking immunosuppressive drugs (for example, after an organ transplant); Having actinic keratosis.
My doctor recommends that I wear sun protection in the form of sunscreen with a SPF of 35 or greater, long sleeves, and a hat when venturing out on our fishing excursions; stay away from tanning beds, and have regular check ups.
How times have changed in the last 45 years. So much has been learned about skin cancer. Not only is nonmelanoma cancer treatable with a high rate of success but is often times preventable by the choices that we make. I've decided that my "tan" from a bottle is the safest way to go for meÃ¯Â¿Â½of course until someone does a study and finds something terrible in "the bottle." At which time, I guess I'll just have to stay fair!
Being a cancer survivor is a relative term. I watched as my Mother's cancer went from her lungs, to her breast, to other vital organs, and finally to her brain. I mourn the lack of correct diagnosis earlier in her life. Her cancer was much more traumatic for me than my own cancer because it meant her life was taken. However, I would not want my lack of understanding or my lack of self-care to leave my family without a mother and a grandmother.
My plea would be for all people to become knowledgeable of the warning signs of cancer. Don't ignore or put off going to a physician early enough for proper diagnosis. Be healthy, eat right, get moving; join MECCA bike club!!!. Have regular check ups with your doctor even if there isn't a history of cancer in your family. Life is too precious and too short to not take care of ourselves and those we love.