Skin-care awarness: Families of skin cancer victims urge caution in summer season
(Editor’s note: The name of the family featured in this article has been changed)
Truckee-resident Mike Spears rarely talks about the death of his daughter, Amy, who passed away at the age of 23 of melanoma skin cancer.
On a sunny morning on May 1, nearly 10 months after his daughter’s death, Spears sits at his kitchen table in his Tahoe Donner home and discusses his daughter’s battle with cancer. He hasn’t talked about it for a while, so the conversation comes in pieces. He stands up frequently and takes a deep breath to regroup and, perhaps, to hold back his tears.
Today was supposed to be her 24th birthday.
Amy was attending the University of Montana when she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in May 2000 – approximately three years after she noticed the small, but irregular mole on her calf for the first time.
For the last two years of her life, Amy split her time between her friends and clinics all over the country to find treatment for the tumors, which spread from her calf to her liver to her lymph nodes and, finally, to her brain.
On July 6, 2002, Amy passed away.
Now Spears is trying to talk about his daughter’s intense struggle with melanoma, so others can learn from her late detection.
“I just don’t want all this to have happened for nothing,” he said.
Although he’s reticent about discussing his daughter’s personal experience with melanoma, he still feels people should understand how to protect themselves.
After Amy’s death, if Spears saw children, or people he didn’t know, outside in the sun, he said he would tell them to wear sunscreen, especially if they were fair-skinned like Amy. He thought it might be putting people off to have a person they don’t know approach them, so he stopped.
“I don’t know,” he said, looking at the floor and shaking his head. “Maybe I should tell them if it’ll make a difference. Even if it saves one person’s life.”
An American’s lifetime risk of developing Melanoma is one in 75, according to the Melanoma Research Foundation. However, for people living in the Tahoe area, the chances of getting skin cancer can be much greater.
“We actually see quite a bit of melanoma out here,” said Dr. Dianne Kamenetsky, Truckee’s only full-time dermatologist. “People are outdoors a lot and we’re at a higher elevation, so the sun’s rays are more intense.”
Kamenetsky said she recommends annual skin screenings beginning at age 20 – early detection is key since melanoma is the most common cancer among women age 25 to 29, according to the Melanoma Research Foundation.
Most dermatologists also stress reapplying sunscreen every two hours while out in the sun, especially on children. In parts of Australia, where the ozone layer has depleted to dangerous levels, schools have implemented a “Slip, Slop, Slap” campaign, requiring all students to slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat before heading out to recess.
“Fifty to 80 percent of lifetime sun exposure happens before age 18,” Kamenetsky said. “I tell my kids to put on their sunscreen every morning.”
The lucky ones
Although most cases of melanoma begin at a relatively young age – it only takes one severe sunburn as a child to contract melanoma – many adults have found a suspect mole or lesion carrying the disease.
Long-time Truckee resident and registered nurse Debbie White was much more fortunate than Ashley in her bout with melanoma.
Because her father is a physician, White was able to receive treatment less than one week after she was diagnosed with melanoma in October 1999. Even though the surgery to remove the pencil-erasure-sized mole on her bicep left a thick, three-inch scar, White said the scar is in such an exposed place for a reason: so people will ask her how she got it.
“It’s not a simple surgery to have melanoma removed. They carve you up,” said White, who is an education coordinator at Tahoe Forest Hospital. “I’d say, if people think it’s not pretty being pale, [the surgeons] cut you up, and that’s not pretty.”
She said many people have the misconception that melanoma is just like having a benign mole removed. However, even in its early stages, melanoma takes hold well below the surface of the skin.
White, who was featured in the book “Women of Truckee,” says her bout with cancer has been a blessing.
“I definitely lead my life differently since my diagnosis. I live my life to the fullest. I realized what’s important to me. I have an incredible love for life anyway, but this has really enhanced it,” she said.
Before her diagnosis, White was an “outdoor enthusiast,” and after she found out she had skin cancer, she was worried she wouldn’t be able to maintain her active lifestyle. Yet, since her surgery, she has been on tropical vacations, trips on the river and played in beach volleyball tournaments. She’s just a little more careful now.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” she said of her early diagnosis, “but I would say the experience of having cancer was one of the biggest gifts in my life.”
Celebrate Melanoma Awareness Month with these hints
— Know what to look for:
Asymmetry, the mole is not round,
Border is irregular or poorly defined,
Color is varied and dark, with shades of brown, black, white, blue or red,
Diameter is more than 6 mm (or the size of a pencil erasure).
— It only takes one severe sunburn as a child to get melanoma.
— Get a full-body skin check by a dermatologist at least once a year. If going to general physician is your only option, check yourself for suspect moles and ask the doctor to check them.
— The only ingredient the FDA has approved for UVA and UVB sun ray protection is Parsol 1789, which is in several brands found at the drug store.
— Apply a liberal amount of sunscreen, at SPF 15 or higher, 15 to 20 minutes before going in the sun. Reapply the sunscreen at least every two hours.
— Be sure to use waterproof sunscreen.
— Check out the American Academy of Dermatology’s Web site, http://www.aad.org, for more information.
— More information on melanoma and skin cancer can be found locally at the Tahoe Forest Hospital Community Wellness Resource Center.
Information compiled from sources at the American Academy of Dermatology, the John Wayne Cancer Center and the Melanoma Research Institute.
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