Melanoma Awareness Month
May is Melanoma Awareness Month and also the month that I lost my dad to that very disease. This year marks the sixth anniversary of his passing, and I can tell you that while it never gets easier, you do learn to live with the loss. Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer, with an increased risk among those under 40, especially in women. My dad was 59 when he lost his fight with melanoma, his original melanoma had been removed 27 years before the cancer had metastasized. My dad was healthy: an avid mountain biker, skier, hiker, windsurfer, ate organic, and, yes, wore sunscreen. I inherited my dad’s auburn hair, freckles, and love of the beach. We are the oddity of redheads that actually tan, I have also inherited the risk of melanoma.
To be 100% honest, I never really understood how dangerous and aggressive skin cancer is until it became a part of my life. When my dad was diagnosed his cancer was already at stage IV, meaning it was in the lymph nodes, his brain, his lungs, and his spine. He went to the doctor for back pain, thinking he pulled a muscle or slipped a disk skiing and after a full-body scan left with a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma. Once it is at this stage, it is very hard to treat, according to the Melanoma Research Alliance, the survival rate (which is improving, as treatments improve), is 22.5%. My dad’s treatment included radiation and oral chemotherapy, he developed side effects and severe pain from the treatments, and eventually was on methadone for pain therapy and home oxygen. My dad lost weight at a rapid speed, was bed-bound, needed a walker to get from the bed to the bathroom, all within 3 months, he was diagnosed February 27th and passed away on May 30th.
Knowledge of skin cancer, what to look for, and how to prevent it became so much a part of my life after this experience. The two main causes of skin cancer are UV rays and UV tanning beds. I grew up in the age of tanning beds, I admit my best friend and I would hit the tanning bed in the morning and then head out to the pool, oil up, and layout for hours every day of the summer–typing that gives me knots in my stomach. I have not set foot in a tanning salon since 2013 and I am much more diligent about sunscreen, apply and re-apply. I have also started to wear a hat when I go to the beach and I use self-tanner instead of basking in the sun for hours. I found a dermatologist that understands my anxiety when I come in for my annual skin check, I also do monthly self-skin checks
The Mayo Clinic provides an easy list to remind yourself of what to check for:
- A is for asymmetrical shape. Look for moles with irregular shapes, such as two very different-looking halves.
- B is for irregular border. Look for moles with irregular, notched or scalloped borders — characteristics of melanomas.
- C is for changes in color. Look for growths that have many colors or an uneven distribution of color.
- D is for diameter. Look for new growth in a mole larger than 1/4 inch (about 6 millimeters).
- E is for evolving. Look for changes over time, such as a mole that grows in size or that changes color or shape. Moles may also evolve to develop new signs and symptoms, such as new itchiness or bleeding.
The Take-Away Message
Cancer sucks. Skin cancer doesn’t discriminate, we are all at risk of developing it at some time, The Skin Cancer Foundation states that 1 out of 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. Those are high statistics, living in Louisiana, we have a climate that allows us to be outside for much of the year, the Gulf Coast beaches are just a short drive away, it is so important to be aware and protect ourselves. Melanoma took the something so special from my family, he was the best daddy and G-Daddy that I could have ever imagined, life goes on but there isn’t a day that I don’t think about what I would give up just to have him back. So here is your reminder, pick up the phone and schedule an appointment for your annual skin check, go check yourself, and wear sunscreen every single day.