Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Skin Cancer and Melanoma For Dummies

And For the Ignorant, the Arrogant, the Fearful, and the "It Can't Happen To Me Crowd"

What follows is the post as originally written. Yesterday as I write this in red, I wrote another post calling for us to stop using the "s word" when talking about melanoma The information below is still accurate but please also read the post I've linked to here for a fuller understanding. Do a search for melanoma at this blog and you'll find even more info. If you are part of the melanoma world in any way, please feel free to connect with me at Melanoma Prayer Center on Facebook. Thank You and now, on to that post!

Yesterday, as I write this, I posted a one question poll on my Facebook page asking if people who don't have melanoma understand "melanoma" to be another word for "skin cancer" or if they know it to be a specific kind of skin cancer that's deadly. A few of my melanoma-smitten friends posted that on their FB wall also.

There's a lot of dangerous misconceptions out there about melanoma and, from what I've seen, about skin cancer in general. So, on behalf of all my fellow travelers in the greater Skin Cancer World, please sit back, put your reading glasses on if you need them, and become enlightened so maybe you don't join our ranks.

Please understand that no matter which skin cancer we're talking about...that word "cancer" is attached. CANCER. That's not a word people get happy having attached to them. We do not say, "Oh, they just have stomach cancer." Or, "I just have liver cancer." "It's just lung cancer." Why do we feel like we can say "just skin cancer"?

There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma. A combined total of more than 3.5 million of these will be diagnosed in the USA alone this year making skin cancer much more prevalent than breast, colon, lung, and prostate COMBINED! Basal cell is more common and rarely fatal. Squamous cell is the next common and more than 2500 people WILL die from squamous cell this year. Melanoma is the most deadly of the three and over 8700 people die from it each year. It's on the rise worldwide and on target for being the deadliest of ALL cancers by 2022; eleven years from now. Pretty rough numbers for something that is "just" cancer.

While not all of these cancers are deadly, they are all scarring and disfiguring. None of them card or care. None of them care who you are, what you do for a living or how much money you make. They don't care if you're insured or not. They don't care where you went to school...or if you are still in school. They don't care how old or young you are or what color your skin is. They don't care what gender you are or what your sexuality is. They don't care if you exercise and eat a wholesome diet. They are looking for SKIN. Not the prettiest or the most flawless or the tannest; they just need skin to get started.

Or so we think, because they are called "skin" cancer. Melanoma can get started in your eye. Melanoma isn't necessarily an "out there where you can see it easily" cancer, either. It can start in your ear canal. Got a rectum? It can begin there. Women of any age, it can begin in your vagina. Folks, if you have nails on your hands and feet, it can grow under your nail beds. Not to be left out, there is even oral melanoma that begins in your mouth! It doesn't need the sun or tanning beds to provoke it as it likes the soles of feet and the palms of hands.

There are plenty of statistics out there regarding melanoma and ethnicities, genders, and ages. And while in some instances, some of those stats can appear pretty good, they can also lull certain groups of people into a false sense of security because they think it can't happen to them and it's a disease other people have to worry about. While it's true fewer African-Americans and Hispanics get melanoma than Caucasians; today African-Americans and Hispanics will be diagnosed and some will die from melanoma. While it's true more men get it more often than women; today, women will be diagnosed and some will die from it. While it's true people in their upper twenties and older get it more often; today, children and teenagers will be diagnosed and some will die from melanoma.

Statistics are numbers only on the surface. Scratch that surface and you'll find every stat is made up of real people. People like you and me. People who thought it couldn't and wouldn't happen to them. They didn't fit the profile. They didn't tan either in the sun or in tanning beds. People who thought it was really no big deal because it's just skin cancer.

One final word. Melanoma is particularly noted for having what we lovingly call "renegade cells." All it really takes is only one. You can get that mole, bump, or freckle removed, have it sent to a pathology lab, and it come back "stage 1" melanoma. You aren't cured. There isn't a cure. The best you can hope for is that it doesn't come back; that you don't have a renegade cell loose in your system waiting to surprise you and wreck havoc on you.

It can come back as other primary tumors in your skin or another mole. It can find a home in an organ and come back like gangbusters! You can be diagnosed at any stage at any time. I was initially diagnosed stage 3b as it had already spread to my lymph nodes under my left arm. When it comes back, if it comes back, it will either be in my brain or my lungs. And that will be melanoma that has spread...not brain cancer or lung cancer. People with melanoma that begins in their legs or groin have to worry about it returning in their liver.

Those returns are called "mets." They're nasty, aggressive tumors. Sometimes they can be controlled; sometimes they can be shrunk and killed; sometimes they do the killing. Research is improving and so are available treatments but like everything else in life, not every treatment works for everybody.

The best course of action is prevention to the best of your ability and education. Be aware and be vigilant. When you see something on your body, get it checked out pronto. Don't get sucked into waiting because you're scared or broke. Go to a dermatologist that knows about melanoma.

And a strong word here: you are your own best advocate. Not all dermatologists or general practitioners are up-to-date and knowledgeable about melanoma. If your concerns are not taken seriously, if you are told "it's nothing" but you feel differently...run, don't walk, to another doctor. If you want something removed and pathed, find someone who will take your concerns seriously and remove it and path it.

Another thing that probably has a stat somewhere: today people will die needlessly because their concerns weren't taken seriously; something that looked "OK" wasn't; and by the time that was realized, it was too late. Don't let that happen to you.

Be aware of your body. Be attune to your gut instincts and act on them. Take care of yourself and love the skin you're in.

For more info on all skin cancers, read this:

It's your life.

Be grateful.