Last Thursday, I had my dermatology check-up with Dr. Sutterfield just a few miles from my house. I have these every three months, and this last time everything was all good—nothing suspicious or even cut off this time.
Why the habitual appointments? I was trying to remember why myself, and I believe it’s thanks to my wife, Aimee. She’d gone to Dr. Sutterfield to get some sunspots treated from when she played soccer as a kid. At the time, I thought, “I’m a pale, white male of Irish and Scottish descent with a good amount of moles everywhere. Seems like the right thing to do.”
In the beginning, I was only going annually. They’d take some pictures and every now and then, they’d take a mole off and send it for a biopsy. But they were never worried and it usually wasn’t anything significant. But then, a couple of years back, I had one that was cut and medically termed actinic keratoses—“pre-cancer”—and so I started to come every six months to be safe. For a while, there were no problems.
Then 2020 happened, and as you may have guessed, it wasn’t an easy year to see doctors. It was only in January 2021 that I was finally able to get my regular check-up. Dr. Sutterfield saw a mole she wasn’t crazy about and she took it off for biopsy. I assumed it would be like the rest.
But about a week later, I got the call—it wasn’t a good mole, it was melanoma. Not pre-cancer or even basal cell carcinoma that had gotten several people around me—it was the “bad one” and we had to cut it all out right away.
Now, I had no family history of skin cancer. I never went to tanning beds—I wasn’t even one of those kids that ran around with my shirt off. Did I ever experience some bad burns at the beach? Yes, so maybe that could have contributed. But in truth, I am so fair-skinned that almost all of my adult beach life has been spent in a swim shirt. Even stranger is that, historically, most people diagnosed with melanoma are 65 and older. I was 45 at the time that fateful biopsy came back.
Needless to say, in the very long three weeks from the time that I got my diagnosis to the time I went in for “surgery,” I spent countless hours on the Internet researching the diagnosis. For me, the Mayo Clinic and Melanoma Research Foundation (or MRF) were the most informative and reassuring.
The most important and positive thing about my case is that it was caught early. Based on the spread (thin or stage 1), I only needed excisional “surgery.” I say surgery with quotes as it was outpatient—I was awake, just slightly sedated. They went in and cut a circle slightly larger than the size of a golf ball around where the mole was then stitched the skin back together. Doctors then biopsied all of it to confirm that the cancer had not spread beyond its original siting.
It had not, and that was the best possible outcome. But many have had it much, much worse. Some undergo a more robust set of cuts called Mohs surgery where they cut, test, cut, test—over and over—to determine if the cancer has spread. Others have to sustain radiation or chemotherapy.
But for me—other than not ever becoming a back model and now having to go in for check-ups every three months—melanoma was largely a non-issue. That doesn’t mean it’s not an issue at all, because, again, many suffer from this and other forms of cancer. Some may not even realize they have melanoma until they’ve passed a critical juncture for their health.
After all, my mole was on a part of my back I don’t see and couldn’t even touch. Had I not been inspired by my wife’s dermatology appointments and been going regularly already, it might have settled into my skin and I would’ve never known. I would have done nothing, and it would have almost certainly spread into my lymph nodes and other organs like my liver, making for less of a “non-issue” and more of a dire situation.
The Importance of Early Detection
That’s why I wanted to share my story. Melanoma caught early (and localized) has a 99%+ survival rate. That’s correct—you will survive when it’s caught early. In the interest of full disclosure, that rate drops to 68% when the diagnosis is regional (beyond the skin to nearby lymph nodes), and if it’s widespread (or distant into your organs) the rate of survival is just 30%.
That makes melanoma the most deadly form of skin cancer if you don’t catch it early.
You’d think that with a moniker like that, it would make for a gruesome sight on your body. But I asked my dermatologist, was my mole malformed? Was it super large or spotty? She said no. I have many oddly shaped moles—which is why I started with my check-ups in the first place—but this one was not particularly ugly. It had increased in size some since the last set of pictures taken before the diagnosis, but otherwise, it had grown in “silence” on my back.
Lessons I Learned
Though early detection is paramount, there are other things I learned going through this that I took away and want to recommend.
Don’t get carried away—that’s a popular slogan from MRF to whom I have donated significantly over the past year. It means that you should get in, get pictures, and watch the moles—especially the ones you can’t. If you can monitor yourself, you should, but also use the resources of dermatologists to help. While fair-skinned Caucasians are 20 times more likely to get melanoma than African Americans or other people of darker skin color, that’s no reason to keep your guard down.
My dermatologist reminded me that having many ugly moles is typically less of a risk factor than having one ugly mole. Having an outlier is, of course, more obvious, but if you do have many, it’s important to watch for changes. You know your body – if you see something that doesn’t look right, ask your doctor.
2. Cover Up.
Schellman’s taking our annual corporate trip to Miami this year, and when we go, I’ll be covered. The rest of the time, I wear Zinc-based 46 SPF sunscreen every single day whether I’m at the pool or going to meet a client.
Sunscreen—it’s not just for the beach. Consider adding it to your daily skincare routine.
3. Protect the Young.
I mentioned earlier that melanoma is typically diagnosed in those over 65. Well, it’s also now the #2 form of cancer for people 15 to 29. Another doctor I spoke with said that, with their increased exposure to UV rays, the next generation is twice as likely to get melanoma as this GenXer.
They won’t like it, but I can tell you that my similarly pale son doesn’t know the beach without his swim shirt.
Protect Yourself From Skin Cancer
I was lucky in my case, but the truth of the matter is that, in the last thirty years, melanoma rates have doubled.
Take care of yourself and your loved ones. Start with dermatology appointments if you haven’t already, make sunscreen more routine, and be vigilant in the mirror. While you do that, support groups like the MRF as they aim to promote education, awareness, and advocacy around this silent but deadly disease.
And finally, #GetNaked and #FCancer.
About the AuthorMore Content by Douglas Barbin