Does one sunburn matter? And is your SPF doing all that it promises? Skin cancer gets personal for Sarah Brown.
I’ve always been lucky with my skin. It’s porcelain-pale, generally clear, and doesn’t freckle much. It’s been compared to an Italian Renaissance painting (thank you) and a ghost (no thank you), and the sight of it consistently provokes apparently uncontrollable outbursts from others like “You must never go in the sun!” I do, of course, go in the sun. How else can one play tennis, plant flowers, collect seashells, or float on one’s back and look up at the sky?
But when I go in the sun, I am covered. With long sleeves, with an umbrella (on the beach; lunch alfresco), and with a hat. I swim in a hat. When I go on holiday, traveling with hand luggage is never an option due to the gallons of sunscreen I am dutifully carting along. If my bags were ever checked at Customs, the agents would probably think I was trafficking Neutrogena.
So when last summer I noticed a little scab by my hairline, I waited for it to go away. It wasn’t discolored or misshapen or particularly ominous-looking; I covered it with concealer. Over the next month it didn’t grow, it didn’t change, it didn’t bother me—but it didn’t heal, either.
“Looks like you’ve got a breakout,” a facialist told me. “It’s not a pimple,” I replied, eyes closed. After countless sun symposiums, skin cancer luncheons, and derm appointments over the years as a beauty editor, I knew that if a growth pops up out of nowhere, if you have a scab that doesn’t heal, it is something to take seriously. I pointed it out to a top New York dermatologist, who did not seem concerned and offered me some Botox instead. When I saw him again a month later, he still didn’t think it was anything to be worried about but agreed to a biopsy. “If it’s anything, we’ll just hit it with a laser,” he said cheerfully, plunging a needle filled with lidocaine into my forehead. Several days later, while I was getting my hair blown out before a black-tie, my phone rang. It was the doctor. “You were right,” he said, slightly embarrassed. That little pink dot was an early-stage squamous-cell carcinoma, the second-most-common form of skin cancer. It was slow-growing and confined to the superficial layers of the skin, in situ—a best-possible scenario. Beneath the roar of the hairdryer (I was so stunned I kept getting my hair styled), he explained that I could try a topical chemotherapy cream—which would make me look “really bad” for a few weeks but would likely do the trick—or I could elect to get Mohs surgery, which would cut the thing out once and for all. I’d have a few stitches, hopefully no scar. On the bright side, Halloween was coming up in the following weeks, so I immediately thought of how to work genuine sutures to my advantage. I called the next day and made the appointment […].
But it’s a grave misconception that it is only the pale-skinned, fair-haired, and light-eyed who need to be careful. “It’s a myth that dark skin can’t get skin cancer just because it has more pigment,” says the dermatologist Patricia Wexler, M.D., who points to climbing mortality rates in African-Americans. Among Hispanics, one of the fastest-growing populations in our country, the incidence of melanoma has risen by almost 20 percent in the last two decades.
Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, with nearly five million people treated each year […].