Skin Cancer: Better safe than sorry

Article Date: Jun 16, 2011

James Shehan, M.D.Notice a strange new bump on your arm or an odd-looking spot on your back? It may be more than just a simple change in your complexion – it could be cancer. Just ask Dustin Peterson. The 28-year-old ignored a small bump on the side of his head for about two years until, at his wife’s urging, he went to have it checked out.

"Sure enough, the doctor looked at it and knew it needed to come off because it was looking pretty suspicious," recalls Dustin. Two days later, he got the call – the spot was, in fact, a skin cancer.

Basal cell carcinoma, to be exact

Dustin’s physician, Alegent Health Clinic Dermatologist James Shehan, M.D., explained that it’s a "slow-growing form of skin cancer that often looks slightly different from normal skin. It’s typically not painful, so it’s easy to ignore if you’re not vigilant."

Dustin was lucky – the biopsy removed all of the cancer and he didn’t require any further treatment. He went in for a three-month follow-up and will return to Dr. Shehan once a year to make sure nothing else crops up. He’ll also make some major changes to his lifestyle.

"I used to be pretty careless with using sunscreen," Dustin says. "I’d be out at the lake for eight hours without any sunscreen on and then let my shoulders blister. It was painful, so that was pretty dumb. Now, I limit my time outside and wear pretty substantial sunscreen – 60 SPF or better."

But a high SPF is only part of the equation. Dr. Shehan also recommends:

  1. Follow the directions for proper protection – "Most of us are using sunscreen incorrectly," he explains. "I counsel my patients to put it on 20 minutes before going out and then to reapply just as they are going out. Then reapply every hour or two – especially if they’re in the water or swimming."
  2. It’s not just your face and arms that are at risk – make sure to cover your ears, the back of your neck and other spots you may not think of offhand.
  3. Stay away from tanning beds.
  4. Avoid the sun during peak hours  - not only will it keep you cool, but staying inside or in the shade from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. will also help keep your skin safe.
  5. Consider sun-protective clothing – this used to be seen as something for people with sun sensitivities, now more products are coming on the market for anyone who is sun-sensible.
  6. Get to know your body – check your skin regularly to familiarize yourself with any moles or markings. Make note of any changes and then tell your doctor so he or she can take a look.

As for Dustin, he’s learned his lesson.

"If there are any spots or skin that is foreign or whatever – no matter how small they are – it’s better to get them looked at earlier than later. It’s been almost two years since I had mine and I don’t know how much longer I would’ve waited if it weren’t for my wife."

Reader Comments
Posted: Jun 23 2011 10:56 AM CST by Connie Peppard

I did not realize that I should reapply sunscreen again after the first application. I put it on, let it dry, and go outside. Thank you for the good tips.

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