Skin Cancer Awareness Month is every month for some
Mar. 15, 2023
By Mary Wade Burnside
Skin Cancer Awareness Month isn’t until May, but it’s been in the news — and on my mind — lately.
That’s because for me, and now President Joe Biden, every month is Skin Cancer Awareness Month.
President Biden got a skin cancer diagnosis recently, just as I did in December.
The president is lucky, at least in my view. The lesion found on his chest was determined to be basal cell carcinoma (BCC), the most common and easily treated form of the disease. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, BCC causes minimal damage when caught and treated early.
The mark on my leg that looked like a spider or bug bite turned out to be squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), which is a little trickier. It’s also true that if found early, it can be very treatable if caught early.
But while the likelihood of SCC spreading to other organs in the same way that melanoma can is small, it’s still possible. That was unnerving.
My story started in early October, when I noticed a mark surrounded by a red ring on my calf. It was pretty small and not super noticeable, but as the public information officer at Monongalia County Health Department, I’ve covered not only skin cancer awareness but also ticks and Lyme disease. So I got some antibiotics just in case that’s what it was.
Luckily, about a week later, I happened to have an appointment with my dermatologist. And luckily, near the end, I remembered to show her the mark on my leg. She said, “If that’s not gone by Thanksgiving, I’ll biopsy it.” It wasn’t and she did.
She didn’t think it was skin cancer and neither did I. So I was quite surprised to get a call telling me that not only was it skin cancer, but it wasn’t even the milder basal cell type.
I quickly got caught up on squamous cell carcinoma. First of all, I thought it was a strange place for it to appear, but I was told that for women, the legs are not that uncommon.
While a procedure called Mohs surgery is used to remove lesions that might be on the face or upper body, I underwent something called curettage and electrodessication. My doctor scraped away the bad cells, which were easily detectable, and applied an electric current to the area three times, basically torching my skin. “It will look like a cigarette burn,” she told me, although my sister thought it more resembled a cigar shape.
I was exposed to the sun as a child but I’ve been more careful as an adult. But I also knew that as a fair-skinned person whose father had precancerous lesions removed, I was at risk.
Now, I have to check for any unusual marks on my skin once a month and visit my dermatologist every six months. I even had to alert my dentist (here at MCHD Dentistry, where practitioners always screen for any type of oral cancer) because while lesions usually appear on body parts on which the sun shines, that’s not always the case.
And as the days get longer and warmer, I’ll definitely be thinking about using sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF) even more, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when individuals are at the highest risk for sunburn.
I always thought that if I got a suspicious lesion, I would automatically suspect skin cancer. But mine absolutely looked like a bug bite. Luckily, it was on a part of my body I could easily see, I had an existing appointment with my dermatologist and she acted quickly.
As it turns out, the lab work determined that it was in situ, meaning it hadn’t penetrated any other layers of skin. Therefore, I didn’t need to worry that it had spread internally.
To learn more about the different skin cancers and what they may look like, you can check out cdc.gov/cancer/skin, skincancer.org and cancer.org/cancer/skin-cancer.html.
Also, consider doing self-body checks. If you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life who can help, that’s even better. And if you think you are at risk from sun exposure, you might want to schedule a visit with a dermatologist to look you over.
My squamous cell carcinoma hasn’t been a pleasant experience, but it could have been a lot worse if it hadn’t been caught early.
Mary Wade Burnside is the public information officer at Monongalia County Health Department.