Checking in on your skin

As a kid Amber remembers getting sunburns on her nose and freckles on her fair skin — every single summer.

There wasn’t an afternoon at the pool that didn’t have her back at home with her sisters, fascinated at how sheets of skin could peel of like that.

“Your skin is tight and hurts and it’s painful, but you don’t really think that you’ve done some lasting damage when you’re a kid,” she said. “I wasn’t always careful, I didn’t always wear sunscreen, and I didn’t wear hats. I didn’t think about the shade. All these things that now you understand are more impacting and you have to pay more attention to.”

While lying on a beach a couple years ago on vacation, Amber’s husband noticed a weird shaped mole on her back. He told her to get it checked out.

“It wasn’t raised, but it was sort of in the shape of a country, and they say you should pay attention to the borders,” she said. “I couldn’t see it, and it wasn’t bothering me, so I just let it go for a couple of years. But then last summer, my husband brought it up again.”

The mole had gotten bigger and another mole had formed next to it. Her husband insisted she get it checked out.

“I decided he was right, better safe than sorry,” she said, and immediately made an appointment to get her moles checked.

When you get your moles checked, you wear a gown and they look at all of your skin to see if you have any concerning marks or moles. They check everywhere, even places you wouldn’t expect to be problematic, and they look for warning signs in:

  • asymmetry
  • rough borders
  • changes in the mole
  • inconsistent color

“If it looks weird or out of place or if it’s growing or getting darker, it’s something to pay attention to,” Amber said. “My husband even took pictures of my mole so we could track any changes over time.” Her doctor decided to remove the mole on her back and another under her arm as a precaution.

Skin cancer is the number one killer of women, claiming more lives than breast cancer at this point.

“It’s a pretty eye opening thing that we really have to pay attention to,” Amber said. “The way you can do that is by taking as many precautionary measures as you can, like sunscreen and shade and wearing hats and sunglasses. And also by paying attention to your skin and the messages that you body is trying to give to you. It’ll literally put up a red flag in the form of a strange mole, but you have to pay attention to it.”

Learn how to examine your skin for melanoma from experts at the National Cancer Institute here.

MORE TIPS & TOOLS

Get Smart about Protection
Check out the best and worst sunscreen list on the Environmental Working Groups cosmetic safety database.

Diagnosing a Doctor
At the American Medical Association, treat yourself to a doctor who’s good for you.

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Melanoma is NOT just skin deep!

Wendy’s mole was starting to look suspicious. “The mole was very prominent, very dark, and very raised, and that’s pretty much a classical sign of a mole that is cancerous. I would say it was about the size of an eraser head on a pencil.”

She knew it wasn’t good, but always found excuses not to have it checked out.

“My brother’s wedding is coming up and I don’t want a scar, so I’ll just deal with it later,” or “I’m busy this week.”

When it got to a point where people wouldn’t stop asking her about it, she got it checked. It was removed immediately, biopsied and came back as stage 1 melanoma.

“The doctors cut into my neck to do a margin study, and it came back clean,” she said. “My blood work came back clean, and we were all satisfied with that.”

Thinking it was all over, dealt with and done, Wendy went on about life. Then a year later, while at work one day, the left side of her body went limp. For two weeks she drug her leg around behind her and tried to avoid using her left arm.

“At that point, I didn’t think it had anything to do with melanoma,” she said. “But after some tests, including an MRI and a chest x-ray, the doctors found a tumor on the right side of my brain and two in my left lung-the melanoma had entered my bloodstream. The oncologist said that it was stage 4 melanoma, and I had three to six months left.”

In the cancer world, there’s no stage 5. Stage 5 means, you’re dead. A stage 4 diagnosis meant it was the end of the line for Wendy. She knew that there was no real standard treatment for melanoma and that it was a very tough cancer to treat.

“I was very fortunate that my mother, being a cancer survivor herself, was treated in New York at Sloan-Kettering, which is one of the premiere cancer centers in the country,” Wendy said. “She knew a doctor who knew Lance Armstrong’s doctors, so we made phone calls to him. Everybody we spoke to said that I was very lucky to live in the Los Angeles area because some of the best doctors doing the most aggressive research in melanoma were right here.”

From the beginning Wendy told herself, “I’m going to beat this. I’m going to live my life and just make this go away.” And she did.

Now, Wendy is really taking a stand on being available in any way possible to get awareness out there. She created an event called Laugh Generously, which was a night of comedy to benefit melanoma research. The first year out they raised nearly $50,000.

“The most important thing for me today is to get the message out there: skin cancer is not just about the skin.”

When looking at moles, keep in mind the ABCDs of Melanoma. Use these helpful pictures as a reference when taking inventory of your skin.

MORE TIPS & TOOLS

Diagnosing a Doctor
At the American Medical Association, treat yourself to a doctor who’s good for you.

Examine Your Own Skin!
Learn how to examine your skin for melonoma from experts at the National Cancer Institute.

Get Smart about Protection
Check out the best and worst sunscreen list on the Environmental Working Groups cosmetic safety database.