Here's a sobering fact: basal cell carcinoma is the number-one type of cancer in the United States right now. With summer in full swing, it’s more important than ever to have sun safety top of mind. We’ve got you covered when it comes to all things sun and skin here at Byrdie HQ, whether you’re curious about the best SPF products on the market or what it's really like to get a skin check.
Skin cancer runs in my family. My grandpa was diagnosed with melanoma after frequenting the golf course in the blazing sun for decades, and as a result, he ended up needing a skin graft on his ear. Seeing this in person was enough to make me want to apply SPF 50 every time I stepped foot outdoors, but prior to this eye-opening moment, I was a bit of a self-proclaimed sun-worshiper.
As a teenager, I worked as a lifeguard at an outdoor pool. The sun was practically part of my job description, and I was hopelessly devoted to it. Hours and hours of sun exposure led to amazing tan lines, sure, but the damage I was doing in the meantime was immeasurable. Then, as a college student, I dipped into the tanning bed pool and swam one too many laps, so to speak. Sometimes, I would even go in without applying any sunscreen. Looking back on these moments now, I want to reverse the clock and slap my 20-year-old self into reality.
After seeing firsthand my bronzed skin, sunburns, and potential skin damage, my mother begged me to get an allover body scan at the dermatologist. If you've never heard of this, here's what it entails: The doctor has you strip down to your underwear and scans you with his or her own eyes (and sometimes a magnifying glass) to see if you have any noticeable areas of damage, suspicious moles, or concerning spots.
While on my visit, I felt a bit nervous—mostly because the doctor had a male intern shadowing her, and I suspected he was getting quite the eyeful, but also because I worried the years of sun- and lightbulb-bathing were cause for concern. Much to my dismay, I was right.
The doctor pointed to two spots on my left shoulder—ones I myself had seen a noticeable change in but hadn't thought too much of—and told me she'd need to take a skin sample. She then took out a small blade, cut the moles off of my back (it hurt like heck), and said she'd send them off to the lab. In the next week or so, I wait patiently (and, truthfully, in much fear) to hear the results. Turns out both of the moles were abnormal, and I'd need to come in for a full biopsy to have them removed. Great, I thought.
I ended up seeing a new doctor to have the biopsy done, and let me tell you: That was an incredibly painful experience. The doctor, clad with blood-covered rubber gloves, told me he'd need to put stitches in my skin since he had to go pretty deep in order to remove any bit of pre-cancerous matter. He joked, "It's a good thing you're not a model because you'll have some noticeable scars on your back." Oh, yeah, good thing, Doc. This was no time for humor, but I laughed it off anyway.
A week later, I got a call from the doctor's office telling me he had removed "melanocytic nevi." These are benign neoplasms composed of melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells that colonize the epidermis. Thankfully, he said he had removed any last bit of concerning skin, something I felt I could have told him myself after seeing how deep my new scars were.
Scars or not, I'm so thankful he was able to get the moles off before they led to something worse—I'm not ready to add the C word to my list of oft-used vocabulary. From there on out, I knew I wanted to spend fewer days on the beach and completely cancel any backyard tanning sessions. I also switched out my tanning oils and SPF 4 for SPF 50.
Recently, my mom shocked me with this sentence: "You need to be careful going out in the sun because your skin loves skin cancer," she said. My skin "loves" skin cancer? Is this possible? I wondered if because I was fair-skinned, I was more prone to such a thing. I decided to turn to an expert to get some answers.
"All skin types can get various types of skin cancer. Sun-induced skin cancers are most common in patients with Fitzpatrick skin type 1 and 2. Other skin cancers that are caused by genetic predisposition or viruses can occur anywhere on the body, even in sun-protected areas," says Snehal Amin, MD, of Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery. I'm about a 3 on the Fitzpatrick scale, but I definitely have a genetic predisposition to skin cancer.
If you're wondering when you should get checked, the answer is probably more often than you'd think: "Everyone should check themselves, even in the underwear area, once per month. Patients without a family or personal history should be checked by a board-certified dermatologist once per year. If you have a family history, then you should get checked more often. If you've had melanoma, get checked every three to six months," says Amin.
When checking yourself, you've probably heard of the ABCDs of moles (asymmetry, border, color, and diameter), but Amin says you're missing two crucial letters: E and F. "The most important is E, or evolving. If a mole changes, then it should be looked at by a dermatologist. Patients can get new moles up to about age 40. F is for family history," he explains.
Lastly, I asked Amin if there was a good chance I'd have more abnormal moles in the future, given my history. His answer wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear: "A patient with a history of abnormal moles has a slightly higher predisposition to having more abnormal moles and melanoma. This tendency often runs in families." Good to know.
As jarring as my experience with an annual derm appointment ended up being, I feel so much more informed, and I hope you all do too.
This post was originally published at an earlier date and has since been updated.