YEAH. I KNOW what C word you thought I was talking about…but I’m actually referring to The Big C, Cancer. It seems like everyone thinks cancer is something that happens to everyone else. I’d be willing to bet that all of you have heard someone utter words along the line of “So what. Everything causes cancer. We all have to die someday.” Well let me tell you, as a cancer survivor those words not only wreak of arrogance and ignorance, but are insulting to those of us who have or are in the process of kicking cancer’s ass as well. Yes, I had cancer. Malignant melanoma to be exact and I have a big ol’ scar and missing lymph nodes to prove it. Not sure what that is or why you should care? It’s a form of skin cancer and it can, for the most part, be prevented. Here are 5 things you need to know about cancer.
1) Skin cancer? So what. That can’t kill you.
YES IT CAN. I know the common perception of skin cancer is: get a mole, get it cut off and everything’s fine. You couldn’t be more wrong. Malignant melanoma can kill you just like it kills approximately 8700 people (and that’s just in the United States) every year. More than 114,900 cases are diagnosed annually in the US and if you don’t play your cards right, you could be one of them. Unfortunately the numbers are increasing every year…especially in young women. Still think the odds are in your favor? Try this on for size: 1 in 5 people will develop a form of skin cancer during their lifetime; one in 55 will be diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Yup. Still feeling lucky?
2) Don’t I have to be fair skinned to get skin cancer?
NOPE. Anyone can get it, no matter what their coloring. It is more common among those of us that are fair…blonde haired, blued eyed and redheads need to be extra careful. If you freckle you’re a prime candidate. That does not mean that if you are naturally dark complected you are exempt from the disease. You are at risk too. While it is less common among Asians, Latinos and African Americans, the fatality rate is substantially higher. No matter what your skin color you need to take the proper precautions.
3) I use a tanning bed so I’m safe.
STRIKE THREE. Tanning beds are equally if not MORE harmful than the sun because your skin is being exposed to super-concentrated cancer causing UV Rays. The World Health Organization lists tanning beds as one of the most dangerous cancer-causing substances, right along side plutonium and cigarettes. Keep baking in that tanning booth twice a week and you may end up with cancer sooner than you think. If you use a tanning bed you are 74% more likely to develop malignant melanoma. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re being safe. Skin damage is skin damage and, in case you were unaware, a tan = damaged skin. There are no two ways about it.
4) Great. So I have to be a pasty-skinned freak…
HEY! What you call a pasty-skinned freak I call a porcelain-skinned goddess, thank you very much. And you don’t have to give up being golden if you don’t want to. Haven’t you heard of self-tanning lotions? What about spray tans? There are some that don’t make you Snookie-orange, you know. Or you could just embrace your paleness. *Gasp!* Did you know that fair skin used to be a sign of wealth and affluence? Oh, my yes. To have tan skin was common. It meant you had to work out in the fields all day. By renaissance standards I am one foxy lady. My point: You don’t have to fry to be pretty. Fake it or go au naturale, just don’t bake. And just in case cancer isn’t a big enough deterrent (which it honestly should be…you must really be shallow or hate yourself if it isn’t), then please allow me to fill you in on a little something: In all honesty, you don’t look as good with a tan as you think you do…and you’ll pay for it later when you’re 35 and your face looks like a dried up, worn out, wrinkly piece of cheap leather that a down-on-his-luck biker would deam unworthy of using to mend his threadbare chaps. No amount of moisturizer, chemical peels or plastic surgery can fix that.
5) Okay, okay. I get it. So what can I do to stay safe?
GOOD FOR YOU for putting your life and health first! You are awesome! It’s really not as hard as you think to be sun safe. Follow these steps to protect your beautiful self:
1) APPLY SUNSCREEN with a minimum of SPF 30 with UVA & UVB protection (that’s broad spectrum). You’ll need to slather it on at least 30 minutes before you go out in the sun. And yes, you DO need to wear sunblock every day of the year…winter, summer, spring and fall, the sun is the sun is the sun. You can get a sunburn doing some winter skiing in the Swiss Alps or skinny dipping along the coast of the Cinque Terra. It really doesn’t matter…either way your skin will fry. So stop your fussing and eye-rolling and just put it on already. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…trite but true!
2) REAPPLY. Yes, you need to put more on after you go swimming or have been outside for more than 2 hours. Read the directions on the label to be sure you know how often to reapply. It can vary from brand to brand. If you suck at keeping track of time (and who doesn’t when they’re having fun?) then you can pick up the UV SunSense bracelet. Here’s how it works: put the bracelet on, while you apply your sunblock be sure to slather it on the bracelet too. The bracelet will turn purple in the sun and then begin to change colors as the sunblock wears off. When the bracelet turns light pink then it’s time to reapply. It doesn’t get much easier than that, now does it?
3) CHECK YOUR SKIN regularly and, if you’re fair skinned, check it often. If you don’t already have a dermatologist I highly suggest you get one. My cancer could have been caught before it was a problem if I hadn’t had to wait 6 months for the dermatologist to see me as a new patient. Yeah. 6 months. Do yourself a favor and start seeing one now. Even if you just go in once a year for a skin check it will save you the potentially life-threatening wait of trying to get in with a new doctor should a problem arise. Should you notice a new mole (mine popped up overnight after a sunburn and was the size of the head of a pin! It did NOT match the warning signs for cancer, so be alert and aware!) or have an old mole that is changing size, shape or color or begins to bleed, itch or ooze, GO TO THE DOCTOR!!!!! Seriously! Don’t blow it off. Don’t wait and see what happens. It could be nothing or it could be cancer. JUST GO GET IT CHECKED. The survival rate when detected early is 99%. The survival rate for those who are diagnosed with advanced stages plummets to 15%. This is your life and, as far as we know, it’s the only one you get. Don’t screw with it.
IF YOUR HEAD is still planted firmly up your butt and you still don’t think it can happen to you, then I strongly suggest you talk to a survivor, a person who’s lost a loved one or volunteer at your local cancer treatment center. You have absolutely no idea how horrifying it is to be told you have cancer unless you’ve had the misfortune of being diagnosed. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, and my cancer experience was easy compared to what others go through. So if you haven’t pulled your head from betwixt your butt cheeks yet, then do it. You aren’t the exception to the rule. It can happen to you.
FOR MORE information on skin cancer treatment and prevention please visit:
M.D. Anderson Cancer Center (great big hugs to Dr. Ross. You are my hero!)
IF YOU WANT to know about my personal experience with malignant melanoma, let me know. I’ll be happy to answer any question you have for me in future articles. And please remember to be sun safe. I adore you and want to keep you around for a long long time. What can I say…I’m selfish like that.