Being an avid sailor, runner and also playing tennis, I am exposed to the sun a lot. Twelve years ago, at the age of 52, I was diagnosed with Stage I, close to Stage II, melanoma. A small mole located on my neck expanded and darkened over the summer. Fortunately, my wife noticed the changes to the mole. She convinced me to see a melanoma specialist since it was my first skin exam. A few days after the biopsy, the doctor called to say that the mole was Stage I melanoma and was close to Stage II due to the thickness. I had never paid attention to melanoma, but quickly learned about skin cancer and my condition. A few recollections stand out from my diagnosis and successful treatment.
The chances of successful removal are very good with early detection! Plastic surgeons are highly skilled to remove the cancer and to minimize any impact. They have my upmost respect! I thought the worst when the surgeon described how he would remove a golf ball sized chunk of flesh from my neck. He assured me to not worry, that he would make a vertical incision (about eight inches long) on my neck and face so he could stretch the skin to cover and eventually fill in the removed flesh. Today, the scar is very narrow and you really must look hard to see it.
Second, the specialist explained that due to the location of the skin cancer there was a high risk of a reoccurrence advancing into my lymph nodes. He also explained that there is always a chance (likely small in my case) that the cancer has migrated elsewhere in my body. He then had my attention! Avoiding the sun, sunscreen, wide rim hats and UV protective clothing immediately became my standard procedure.
The doctor also explained that we accumulate the impact of the UV rays. Probably like many kids, I had too much sun exposure on unprotected skin early on – cutting lawns without a shirt, dark tan every summer, caddying, etc. Even as an adult, a baseball hat was my only protection and sunscreen was for others.
In the meantime, there have been no other occurrences. I religiously protect myself from sun exposure (sun screen, wide brim hats and UV clothing) and encourage others to do the same. As with all cancers, we never get away from it and the regular skin exams and chest x-rays remind me to remain diligent! Also, a doctor friend gave great advice to stay in good shape to reduce the risk of reoccurrence. That motivated me to exercise more often.
Looking back, the importance of education is clear – knowing the impact of unprotected sun exposure and understanding the risks of melanoma. I learned about skin cancer the hard way and had never thought about the risks. Unfortunately, many of us (and often those clearly at risk) generally don’t think about the impact of sun exposure. That is why I support IMPACT Melanoma and its programs to increase awareness to reduce the occurrence of skin cancer. They recently expanded their reach nationally and I will help them develop their programs in the Maryland/Washington, D.C. area. We have long summers with many months of sun exposure!!!