9 Things You Can Learn From My Skin Cancer Scare

polished-toes-photoI sat in the car, staring in horror at the brown dot on my second toe. Skin cancer, I thought.

We were en route to vacation on Cape Cod, and this was the first time I’d had in forever to actually relax. I’d put my bare feet up on the dashboard and I was singing along to a song on the radio. Then I stared down. And…skin cancer. 

I’m not a hypochondriac. I’m a magazine editor, and I had literally just worked on a major article for Health about skin checks. I’d examined dozens of photos of moles that had the ABCDE signs of melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer): A, asymmetrical (the halves do not match); B, border is irregular; C, colors are varied; D, diameter larger than 1/4 inch (about the size of a pencil eraser) and E, evolving. I took a shot of the spot with my iPhone and zoomed in. It seemed to be have a dark center, with a lighter exterior. The edges looked jagged, and the halves were asymmetrical. True, it wasn’t that big, but it seemed to have the other signs.

Thing is, melanoma is extremely treatable if caught early. And here we were, headed out on vacation. I stared at the photo some more. I glanced at my cuticles, all scaly and gross, and realized I seriously needed a pedicure. Then I thought, HOW CAN YOU THINK ABOUT PEDICURES WHEN YOU HAVE SKIN CANCER? and that’s when I couldn’t keep this to myself anymore.

Dave,” I hissed.

“What, honey?” he asked.

“I think that spot on my toe looks like skin cancer,” I said.

“What?!” he said. He couldn’t really look close, given that he was driving.

I explained. “I’m sure it’s OK,” he said, reassuringly.

I dialed the dermatologist, got his office manager on the phone and told her the situation. We booked an appointment for immediately after my trip. “One week won’t make a difference even if it’s melanoma, right?” I asked. “No, it won’t,” she said, reassuringly.

I wasn’t reassured. For the rest of the week, while we cruised around and swam in the pool and jumped waves in the beach and went out to eat, my thoughts inevitably wandered to my toe. I’d stare down at it. I’d sneak peeks at the photo on my iPhone. Skin cancer. Skin cancer. Skin cancer. I sent the photo to a friend who didn’t respond to me, making me think that she also thought it was skin cancer and didn’t want to let me know. (My email went to spam.)

Meanwhile, my mind pored over the facts I’d learned while working on the article. A Mayo Clinic study found that rates of skin cancer are dramatically on the rise among people under 40; it’s increased eightfold for women since 1970. You are at significantly higher risk for melanoma if you are fair (I am) or if you’ve had one or more blistering sunburns during childhood (I had). The biggest surprise: Using a tanning bed even just once increases your risk of skin cancer by 75 percent. Yes, 75 percent.  I had only visited a tanning salon one time, back in college when a spring break in Florida was cloudy and I returned to school seeking my lost tan. If you do tanning beds, here’s another ugly fact: A tanning bed exposes you to to up to 15 times the amount of radiation you get from the sun. 

Skin cancer. Skin cancer. Skin cancer. That little dark spot cast a major shadow over my vacation.

Sadly, I might have never even noticed the dot if we hadn’t been on vacation. I pay so little attention to my body these days, rushing through the shower, rushing to get dressed, rushing to get into jammies at night so I can crash. I’d never once done a skin self exam, let alone the monthly one experts recommend. While you’re naked, you’re supposed to check all over, even between toes, and use a mirror for hard-to-see places like your back, the backs of legs and the back of your neck.

I also thought about how sad it is that too often, people fail to take good care of themselves until they have a health scare. I’ve known a couple of women who’ve had skin cancer and who only afterward became religious about slathering on SPF. I’ve known older guys who’ve had heart attacks and reformed their cheeseburger-eating ways. As a mom, I didn’t just take my health for granted—I neglected it, in many ways, caught in my rush-rush life.

And now, right there on my toe: My terrifying wake-up call.

The first workday back from vacation, I booked over to the dermatologist’s office. He peered at my toe through his magnifying-lens glasses. And then, he took a scalpel and flicked the spot right off.

“Blood blister,” he said, matter-of-factly. “You must have gotten a bruise there at some point.”

All that anxiety over a blood blister? Whoa. I felt silly. And then, I felt very, very lucky. Because for once, it wasn’t a worst-case-scenario scare. It was a gentle reminder that I needed to take better care of my body, and that the business motherhood was no excuse. Pros recommend doing a monthly skin self-check for suspicious moles. If I want to be around for my kids for a long, long time, that’s a tiny price to pay.

Experts also note you should wear SPF every single day of the year, not just during the summer. I already do that (it’s in my moisturizer), but I’m adding skin checks to my beauty regimen. I owe it to myself—and to my kids.

Image: Flickr/Nick Harris

Tagged as: , , , ,

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, profile photo and other personal information you make public on Facebook (e.g., school, work, current city, age) will appear with your comment. Learn More.