Heard the old joke that a doctor is "practicing" medicine? Sometimes it feels that way.
Twenty years ago I noticed a large freckle on the back of my calf. It was new, larger than a pencil eraser and it worried me. I pointed it out to my dermatologist who said it was nothing.
Three years later a new dermatologist assured me it looked fine. Not to worry. Two years later we moved and a new dermatologist said it was harmless. Eighteen months later we moved again, and you guessed it, another dermatologist said it was fine. I told him it bothered me and I wanted it removed, then biopsied.
This doctor literally said, "You're being a silly woman. If I remove that, I'll butcher your leg and it'll look horrible." Great bedside manner. Did he think that would go over well with me?
I found a Plastic Surgeon who removed, then biopsied it. I remember lying on the table, leg numbed, while he cut it out. He said, "This doesn't look suspicious to me."
Ten days later his nurse phoned to have me come back. The biopsy showed melanoma. They needed to take a larger, deeper, part of my calf to be sure they got it all.
I didn't panic, but I was furious. How could five specialists miss my skin cancer? It didn't fit the criteria for them to be concerned. This freckle hadn't darkened or changed during all those years. But my gut told me it wasn't right.
Some possible signs of skin cancer
The most important warning sign for melanoma is a new spot, or a spot that is changing in size, shape, or color. Another important sign is a spot that looks different from other spots on your skin (known as the ugly duckling sign). If you have any of these warning signs, have your skin checked by a doctor.
The ABCDE rule is another guide to the usual signs of melanoma.
A is for Asymmetry
One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
B is for Border
The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
C is for Color
The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
D is for Diameter
The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across (about ¼ inch - the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.
E is for Evolving
The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.
How to protect your skin
I wear hats almost everyday and have three sun umbrellas. I wear very strong sunscreen everyday. I slather all exposed parts of me, rain or shine. When the salespeople tell me there's no benefit to using anything higher than an SPF 30, I ignore them.
If I'm in a very sunny place or will be outside a long time, I layer sunscreens. I start with a chemical sunscreen, which goes on bare skin, soaks in and changes how your skin reacts to the sun. Then, I layer a physical block on top which reflects the suns rays. I can't be too careful.
Look for full spectrum sunscreens that protect against UVA and UVB. Wear UV protective sunglasses, clothing, hats and stay out of the sun. I do all of these and still have spots pop up. They're from damage caused many years ago.
UVA: A stands for Aging.
This radiation penetrates deep into the skin and is responsible for premature aging of the skin and skin cancer. Tanning beds can emit two to five times more UVA radiation than the sun. People actually still use these!
UVB: B stands for Burning.
This radiation is stronger than UVA radiation. It mainly affects the outer layers of the skin, causing sunburns, premature aging of the skin, and skin cancer. These rays are strongest during the summer months -- especially between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
You need to be your own advocate when it comes to your health. And skin cancer is serious business. If anything seems off to you, trust your instinct and go the extra mile to be sure. Skin Cancer is deadly.