Monday, July 19, 2010

Queen Awesome's Adventures in Cancerland: World 23

Today is a big day. It is exactly 2 months since I went in for my biopsy and 1 week since the surgery that will hopefully end this melanoma treatment journey.

Having been diagnosed with melanoma, I have become very aware of how much misinformation and misunderstanding there is about this form of skin cancer. The two most common responses I’ve heard are that melanoma won’t happen to them and that it’s “the best kind of cancer.” Both of these responses are scary. Melanoma can happen to anyone and can be one of the deadliest forms of cancer.

What is melanoma? Melanoma is a cancer that initiates in melanocytes. Melanocytes are the cells that produce melanin; the pigment that colours our skin, hair, eyes and forms moles. Most melanocytes are found in the skin making melanoma of the skin the most common form of melanoma. Melanoma can also be found in the eye, brain, digestive tract and anywhere else melanocytes are found.

What makes melanoma so serious? Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer as it is more likely to spread to the lymph nodes and other areas of the body. Melanoma can spread anywhere but the most common areas are lymph nodes, liver, lungs, bones and brain. If not caught early, melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. Survival rates drop to less than 20 percent when melanoma has spread to other organs. People in advanced stages of melanoma are often given less than a year to survive. Early detection is key.

Who is at risk to develop melanoma? EVERYONE. Yes, there are factors that can increase your risk but the bottom line is EVERYONE, no matter your age, skin colour, or family history is at risk. One of the biggest mistakes anyone can make is to believe they are immune.

What increases the risk of developing melanoma? UV exposure is the biggest factor in increasing your risk of developing melanoma. It does not matter if the UV exposure is from natural or artificial sources; all UV is harmful. According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, approximately 65 percent of melanomas are attributed to ultraviolet ray exposure.

Other risk factors include:
Skin tone: Melanoma does occur more frequently in people with fair skin tone. Fair skin tones have less protection against UV rays then darker skin tones. However, this does NOT mean that people with dark skin tones are not at risk. Bob Marley died in 1981 of melanoma.

Light hair and eye colour: People with blond or red hair and people with blue eyes are also at higher risk. This is again due to less protection against UV rays. Again, this does NOT mean that those with dark hair and/or dark eyes are immune.

Personal and Family History: If one or more immediate family members have been diagnosed with melanoma, there are now studies that show your risk is increased as well. Also, those who have had a previous diagnosis of melanoma are at a higher risk to develop melanoma again in their lifetime.

Severe sunburns, especially in youth: Every sunburn increases your risk of developing melanoma. One blistering sunburn can double your risk of developing melanoma. Just one. Sunburns at a young age are especially dangerous. Protect yourself every time you are exposed to UV rays. It only takes 1 time, 1 burn to change your life.

How do I protect myself? Sunscreen. Every day, every time. Even on cloudy days. A sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30 is recommended and should contain elements to block both UVA and UVB rays. Clothing choices is another way to protect yourself. Sunglasses, hats and clothing with the most amount of coverage are best. Now I know that telling people to wear long pants and long sleeves in 40 degree heat is not that all that likely. Cover yourself as much as possible and for all areas that remain exposed, make sure to cover in sunscreen.

Another common mistake is the thought that summer = sunscreen. The truth is that UV exposure happens at all times of the year. Just because there may be snow on the ground does not mean that you are safe. In fact, snow can increase your risk. Snow, water and sand all reflect UV rays which increases your chances of sunburn.

Be aware of your body. Know your body and be aware of any changes. Any new mole or a mole that shows signs of changing should be checked. If you are not satisfied with your first opinion, don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion. Your health is the most precious thing you have. That’s cheesy, I know, but it’s also true. You need to be proactive when it comes to your health.

What should I look for in a mole? Any mole that you feel is suspicious or that is new should be checked out. When it comes to your health, it is always better to be safe than sorry! Catching a mole before it becomes cancerous is the best time to have it removed. Early detection is so important. The ABCDE’s of what to look for in a melanoma mole can be found here:
Remember, a mole does NOT have to meet all of these criteria to be dangerous.

Tell your doctor if you have small red, brown or flesh coloured patches of rough skin. The patches feel almost like sand paper. I had this symptom and didn’t know that it could be a cancer precursor. I had it on my chest and thought it was just dry patches. But it didn’t matter how much I moisturized, they didn’t go away. It would take a month or two for them to disappear only to reappear somewhere else. I never would have guessed that they could be related to the mole growing on my arm. It wasn’t until I read a magazine article that I realized that these dry patches might be linked to my mole.

Having an open channel of communication with your doctor is so important. If you do not feel as though your doctor is listening to you or taking you seriously, get a second opinion. Trust your gut feeling. If something doesn’t feel right, make a doctor listen to you.

Despite a bit of a setback yesterday afternoon, my arm is healing and my range of motion is improving. One more week until my appointment with Dr Bobyn to have my stitches removed and hopefully, to get the results from the surgery and lymph nodes test.

Both my mom and my dad have struggled with why this is happening to me. In my low moments, I’ve wondered how this happened as well. I’ve never been a sun worshipper. I use sunscreen. It doesn’t make sense. But none of that really matters now. I have (or hopefully had!) melanoma and I don’t want this journey to be in vain. I want to educate people and get my voice out there. I want people to protect themselves. If I can get even a few people to change their sun habits, then it is worth it. If I can get just a few people to have their moles checked out, then it’s worth it. Rock the SPF and have a happy and most of all, SAFE summer!! xoxo

PS - For more information about melanomas, check out:

1 comment:

  1. You have changed my sun habits, I think I have also looked my skin over multiple times. I am a hypocondriac so maybe this is not a good blog to read, but on the other hand it just might be.

    I pray for the best outcome! and I hope the rest of your recovery goes well.