May is melanoma awareness month. I am, unfortunately, aware of melanoma every month. Around the age of 41 I noticed a new mole appear on the front of my left thigh. I had it checked at my annual skin exams and was reassured it was all normal. Last year, February 2015, my dermatologist decided to biopsy it. It came back as an in situ melanoma. I was shocked and horrified that a) my initial concerns had been ignored, and that it had taken 3 years to get a biopsy after naively believing my dermatologist that all was ok, and b) that I had cancer – a potentially lethal cancer if it had not been caught when it was.
Cancer of the skin is by far the most common of all cancers. Melanoma accounts for only 1% of skin cancer cases but causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths.
Here are the American Cancer Society’s estimates for melanoma in the United States for 2016:
- About 76,380 new melanomas will be diagnosed (about 46,870 in men and 29,510 in women).
- About 10,130 people are expected to die of melanoma (about 6,750 men and 3,380 women).
The rates of melanoma have been rising for at least 30 years.
Much of this increased rate can be attributed to more vacations abroad to sunnier climates since the 1970s. I remember, as a teen, baking in Portugal and Tenerife with no spf, and even using baby oil to ‘intensify’ my tan. Two weeks in the sun each year meant making the most of it, and peeling shoulders were almost a badge of honor. As a young adult in the City I would lay on the sun bed at the gym after a work out. I know when the damage was done.
I am now fastidious about spf application – nothing less than factor 50 and I still have to be careful. I still love the sun, but now spend most of my time in the shade, where it is still possible to get too much sun! I really don’t want to preach – just raise the issue – especially as the UK is enjoying glorious sunshine right now. I expect there are many red faces in the office today. Wearing a facial sunscreen on your neck and face is also the best way to prevent aging – so there is really no reason not to!
This is how my thigh looked after having a tiny mole removed. They have to take a football shaped piece of skin off to ensure the margins were clear.
Today I still have a scar about 2 inches long that is a constant reminder to use that spf.
I thank my lucky stars that my mole was somewhere visible, even though it had none of the attributes of a melanoma – irregular shape, color or bleeding – my gut knew it was abnormal. If it had been on my back I may never have seen it to raise concerns. I am also thankful that when I moved to Atlanta friends told me how important an annual skin check is – never something that had even occurred to me in the UK.
These days I invest in a couple of rash guards each year, and wear them over my bikini in the sun. These from Athleta are my favorite as they have a zip a the neckline – making them easier on and off and more flattering. They come in lots of great colors too – I have the black and the purple in a medium.
On a final note – my 8 year old son recently had a mole removed for biopsy. It was clear, but I now take both children for annual skin checks too. Always better to be safe…melanoma doesn’t discriminate.