My husband is a grown man who is generally great at taking care of himself and his healthcare, but a few months ago, when a raised patch of skin showed up near his nose, I had to take charge. He has never been the kind of guy to overreact about aches and pains, but he also doesn’t hesitate to call his doctor if something feels off. He’s a general contractor, and he’s had his share of job-related strains and health issues. With this, though, he was reluctant.
I think he didn’t care as much about this particular problem because it wasn’t interfering with his life in any way. He didn’t feel pain, his activities weren’t restricted — it was just a cosmetic issue. I, on the other hand, looked at the problem every time I looked at my husband. I also have older relatives who have had simple moles turn into something worse, so I’m particularly sensitive about the subject.
So, trying to keep the word “cancer” out of my head, I prodded my husband time and again. “I’m sure it’s fine,” he’d reply. “Don’t worry about it.”
Eventually, I convinced him to come with me to my own dermatology appointment so my doctor could “just take a peek.” The doctor quickly validated my concerns, and we arranged for my husband to have his own appointment a few days later.
According to the dermatologist, people who work outdoors are more prone to developing some form of skin cancer. She looked at my husband’s skin and said the pearly, raised bump had the textbook characteristics of the disease. She decided a biopsy should be taken.
A few days later, we heard back: yup, cancer. Basal cell carcinoma to be exact.
It was just a brief period of time between the biopsy and the moment we heard the results, but those few days were terrifying. They were somehow even scarier than the diagnosis, and I think it’s because I let my thoughts run wild. Since then — since the prodding and the sleepless nights, all the doctor’s appointments and the eventual clearance that everything was gone — I’ve realized the reassuring power of research and education.
The dermatologist told us basal cell carcinoma was very treatable and suggested that we use a procedure called Mohs surgery to remove the affected tissues. According to the website of Dr. Alysa Herman, a Mohs surgery specialist in Miami, “Because this method immediately verifies the complete removal of the cancerous tissue, Mohs surgery offers the highest success rate of all skin cancer treatments — up to 99%.” That’s what I call reassuring.
My husband got the Mohs procedure, which involved a day at a surgical center where our dermatologist slowly removed tiny layers of skin and checked them for signs of cancer. Once we got the all-clear, there was only a small bandage, but I felt I still had a gaping hole in my knowledge.
To ease my anxiety, I tried to learn everything I could find about the signs, symptoms, and treatments of skin cancer. I poured over the Skin Cancer Foundation’s website and learned warning signs and prevention strategies.
It has now been 3 months since my husband underwent Mohs surgery, and I’m relieved to say that neither he nor I have had any more suspicious spots crop up. We have become more vigilant about protecting our skin and watching out for any changes. I feel much more in control than I did those days when we were waiting for word on the biopsy, and I know it’s because I’ve armed myself with understanding.
Here are the major steps we have taken as a family to prevent future skin cancer scares:
1. Lather up.
He grumbled about it at first, but my husband has started applying sunscreen as part of his everyday routine right out of the shower. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a sunscreen of at least 15 SPF, but we go beyond that. For our faces, my husband and I both use a facial moisturizer with 30 SPF, and we use a 55 SPF spray-on sunscreen for everywhere else. Both of these are “broad spectrum,” meaning they help block UVB light known to cause cancerous growths along with UVA rays that cause burns.
2. Sun-proof the wardrobe.
Since the diagnosis, my husband has traded in his short-sleeve shirts for some sun-shielding long sleeves in sport fabrics that are still comfortable in warm weather. We have both bought some hats to keep our faces and scalps protected. (Thank goodness there are so many hats in style right now!)
3. Perform monthly self-exams.
About once a month, my husband and I check every inch of each other’s skin from scalp to toes looking for anything new or suspicious. Here is a quick explanation of how to perform a self-exam and what to look for, including the ABCDE’s of skin cancer.
4. Document it.
This article from the American Academy of Dermatology explains how using your phone’s camera to document any unusual skin lesions or bumps can be potentially life-saving. Instead of guessing whether or not that mole looks different (which I totally do), it is easier and less stressful to simply photograph the suspicious spot and take a picture next month and the month after that to compare.
5. Get on the books.
A lot of great preventive work is done through self-exams and photography. However, having a professional examine you once a year is ideal. This is also a great chance for you to point out anything unusual and hopefully put your mind at ease. A lot of people see a dermatologist only a couple of times in their lives, but I’m convinced it should be a regular check-up, just like the dentist.
So there you have it. That’s my family’s story and what we learned. I hope you can use this to make positive, proactive changes in your life!