KATU reporter's skin cancer story: 'Early detection saves lives, it probably saved mine'
I felt like Frankenstein with a bulging arm, all sewn up. My husband — relieved it was over — quickly snapped a picture of my unsure smile, and I sent it to my worried parents, siblings, and best friend, Angela, with the caption, “I’m going to have a big scar!”
She responded, “It’s a beautiful scar, I get to keep you longer.”
She’s right. My new cut, which would soon scar over, is my daily reminder of how lucky I am. It’s a two-inch line down my arm — my new line of gratitude — because what was there, was melanoma.
“Skin cancer!” I exclaimed when Christina Oleson, an OHSU physician's assistant who specializes in Dermatology, called me with the pathology results.
My oldest boy, 3, was in the backseat as I was winding my way up the Sunset Highway. I hung up, tears in my eyes.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” he asked, sensing my panic.
In true motherly fashion, I started imagining how I would set my sweet, young boys up for success if they had no Mom to help raise them. “I’m only 33,” I thought. “How could I have skin cancer?”
I apply sunscreen daily and certainly cake it on if I’m headed outdoors for any extended time. Even in my teens, being fair-skinned, I was always pretty good about protecting myself in the sun. Obviously not enough. I certainly suffered some burns, but nothing compared to classmates and friends. Sadly, all it takes is one burn to increase your risk. Oh, and the tanning beds for prom. Ugh. If I could only have a chat with my insecure high school senior self who so badly wanted to glow.
I started going for yearly skin checks in my mid-20s, after my sister had an atypical mole. When we moved to Oregon in 2015, an OHSU Dermatologist photographed a mole on my upper right arm. She didn’t like its look and said they’d keep an eye on it. As my 2017 skin check rolled around, I canceled. “I’m too busy,” I told myself. At the time, I was pregnant with our second child.
This past winter, I noticed the mole looked a little darker. “I should call,” I thought, but I didn’t.
Weeks turned into a few months and Finally, I rebooked.
Then, I canceled again (come on, the kids were sick!)
My excuses had run out and I was finally on the exam table the first week of May. I happened to have a cold sore - the first in my life. I was paranoid about it — especially presenting my journalism work daily on television — and talked at length about prevention with the doctor. Hindsight can make you laugh out loud. Right there below my fixation with my mouth was this mole glaring up at me. Oleson scrutinized it, compared the photograph taken two years prior, and measured it. It had doubled in size, so she decided to remove it.
Beyond having to change the Band-Aid, I barely gave it a thought. Again, the silly cold sore was consuming my thoughts.
A week later, my phone rang. Oleson explained the Melanoma was “in situ,” which means it is in the upper layer of the skin. It hadn’t invaded the deeper tissue. The best-case scenario, but I was scared.
I knew from years of reporting on medical issues that Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. I also knew Oregon’s rates are some of the highest in the country.
The grey skies we live with for much of the year “leaves people with a desire to get more sun. It’s almost like deprivation,” explained Dr. Sancy Leachman who chairs OHSU’s Department of Dermatology. She’s also the director of the Melanoma Research Program at the Knight Cancer Institute. “Overcast skies give us a false sense of security because we think we’re not getting the damaging rays, that’s it’s not harmful to us. The rays are invisible and they’re hurting us.”
Dr. Leachman also said since a large percentage of people in Oregon are of northern European descent, the genetic background makes one more at risk for melanoma.
“We have a lot of lightly colored skin, freckles, light hair, light eyes,” Dr. Leachman said.
OHSU’s started the “War on Melanoma,” where they’ve created the Melanoma Community Registry now 8,000 people strong. With people willing to participate in research studies, they hope to answer a lot of the unknowns.
“It helps to move the research forward faster,” Dr. Leachman explains. “Every melanoma has a life of its own.”
An OHSU scientist also created “MoleMapper,” an app where you can track your moles and how they change and grow over time. This is especially helpful for people who have trouble accessing a Doctor. You can also opt to agree to send your images to researchers for analysis.
“We’re able to bring data from thousands and thousands of people together to identify the features,” Dr. Leachman explaied as they work to spread the importance of early detection.
Speaking of detection, dermatologists say you should do self-exams regularly and if anything stands out, get in to see a professional. If you’re over the age of 40, it’s recommended you get yearly screenings, and much sooner if there’s a family history.
“Live your life but do your best to seek the shade, and take the protective measures,” Oleson said. “Sunscreen should be at least SPF 30 or higher and what’s most important is that people re-apply every two to three hours, if you’re outdoors. It needs to be reapplied more often if you’re sweating or swimming. I don’t personally like sprays. We tend to like zinc and titanium-based creams.”
Three days after my diagnosis in mid-May, the Dermatological surgeons at OHSU happened to have an opening. Dr. Anna Bar removed a decent chunk of my skin and sewed me up. She got all the cancer cells! I was sore for a few days, but it healed well, beautifully actually.
My best friend was on to something.
She, my husband, our children, my parents, my siblings, everyone in my life, gets to “keep me longer” thanks to early detection. Please wear your sunscreen and don’t skip your yearly screenings. My heart goes out to the underinsured or those who don’t have the proper access to preventative care.
If I never went for a check, the cancer would have grown for years — reaching and thriving well into the deep layers of my skin. It could have been too late. But it isn’t. And I’m filled with gratitude, even if I only have two inches to show for it.