A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer. It was not something I ever expected to deal with. I don’t go to tanning beds, I don’t sun bathe, I cover up, and I always wear sunscreen. I thought I was doing everything right. I was doing everything right. Despite that, I still got skin cancer decades before the average person.
I first discovered the spot on my shoulder about two years ago after a day in the sun at Steeplechase. At the time, I thought it was just a rash or a scrape or some other innocuous weird human body thing and just ignored it (see below for a what-is-that-red-mark-on-my-shoulder-selfie). For the most part, it didn’t bother me, it didn’t seem to grow or change, and most of the time I barely noticed it. I assumed it was nothing.
Approximately a year later, I saw a Facebook post (caution: graphic photos) by a young woman named Tawny Willoughby. At just 21 years old Tawny got her first skin cancer diagnosis. After six years and several more occurrences, she shared her story to warn others. It was her post, and her description of her symptoms, that made me first suspect that the mysterious spot on my shoulder might actually be skin cancer.
I finally scheduled an appointment for myself a few months later. You might be asking yourself why it took me so long to go to a dermatologist to get checked out after I realized I might have skin cancer. The answer is simple: I am an idiot. I let things like work and fear and stubbornness get in the way of me taking care of myself. I don’t really have an excuse for it. Trust me, any excuses you have for not going aren’t very good either.
Basal cell carcinoma is caused by sun exposure. I used to think that skin cancer just appeared as oddly shaped moles. However, it can appear in many forms. Additional symptoms can include: rough or scaly red patches that do not heal or possibly bleed on and off or crust; patches with itchiness, tenderness, or pain; raised growths or lumps; pearly or waxy bumps; flat, flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesions; and a long long list of other possibilities. Essentially, if it looks different, go get it checked.
The spot on my shoulder was just a red patch that looked relatively normal unless I spent a day in the sun. When that occurred, it would become sore and raw. I committed the cardinal sin of looking up my symptoms online. It seemed like classic basal cell carcinoma. A trip to the dermatologist and a biopsy confirmed my suspicions. When the nurse called to tell me the news I responded by excitedly shouting “internet diagnosis for the win!”
The solution? Surgery.
I am recovering nicely from my surgery. The first few days were a bit of a pain because my movement was rather limited. I have two layers of stitches (internal and external). But in a few weeks I’ll be good as new. Plus, I’ll have a fun new scar on my shoulder that will make me look dangerous.
I am lucky. Basal cell carcinoma is pretty treatable. It is malignant, but slow moving and rarely metastasizes. It is basically the pot head of the cancer world. However, studies show basal cell and other skin cancers are linked to higher risks of other forms of cancer (such as breast, colon, bladder, liver, lung, brain, prostate, stomach and pancreas). I already had a pretty high incidence of cancer in my family’s history. This is one more reason for me to be vigilant and get my annual checks.
I hope this post will motivate you to go get a screening. If my cancer had not been on my shoulder, I might not have seen it and could have let it grow for years unchecked. It would have turned a very treatable situation into a disastrous one. It doesn’t matter how young or “careful” you think you are, go see a dermatologist. It could save your life. (And please share this post to encourage your friends to do the same).