The skinny on skin cancer: One doctor's personal experience (Part I)

Posted by David Asp, Ed.D.
May 24, 2016

Dr Asp Ironman

I was never one who enjoyed sitting out in the sun for long periods trying to get a tan, and I’ve never used a tanning bed. I do, however, enjoy outdoor activities, such as running, biking and cross-country skiing. I have fair skin, a history of cancer in my family and for some 25 years exposed my skin to the dangers of the sun on long bike rides or runs. I was pretty ignorant about the dangers of ultra violet radiation as I frequently went outdoors with no sunscreen. Unfortunately, my health paid the price.

It’s fitting that May is National Melanoma Awareness month as that was the month I was diagnosed with the disease. The melanoma was initially contained and treated in the back of my head near the site of the original tumor with surgery, radiation and injections of the drug, Interleukin. In September 2014, a diagnostic scan revealed prostate cancer, which was unrelated to the melanoma. I had surgery in December of that year, which was successful in removing the prostate cancer. However, another scan in March 2015, showed that the melanoma had spread to the liver, spleen and bone. Since then, I began treatment and continue to receive IV immunotherapy on a regular basis at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Because of my experience and what I’ve learned over these past two years about this disease, I hope to educate others about the harmful effects of ultra violet radiation in order to minimize their risks of developing this disease. It all starts with education, protection and prevention.

Did you know?

There are three basic types of skin cancer:

  1. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer that grows on the skin’s basal cells on the outer most layer of the skin. This type of cancer usually develops on skin that receives a great deal of sun exposure, such as the nose, scalp, neck and hands. It rarely spreads to other areas of the body, and with early detection, it is usually removed.
  2. Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer, which grows in the squamous cells in the epidermis or skin’s upper layers. This also commonly develops on skin that is highly exposed to the sun, but it can also develop in other areas, such as inside the mouth, throat and genital areas. Individuals who smoke or chew tobacco increase their risk of obtaining squamous cell carcinoma in the mouth and throat. If this type of skin cancer is untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body, be disfiguring and fatal.
  3. Melanoma represents 5 percent of all skin cancers and can be fatal. It can develop on normal skin, on an existing mole or other parts of the body, such as eyes, nails, feet and mouth.  Melanoma can spread quickly, and without removing it or establishing treatment, it can be fatal.

Risk factors

While anyone can get melanoma, there are a number of risk factors in developing melanoma. These include a history of cancer in one’s family — particularly melanoma — fair skin with freckles, the number of mole’s on one’s body and the amount of sun exposure an individual has experienced in their lifetime. It takes only one blistering sunburn, especially at a young age, to more than double a person’s chance of developing melanoma later in life. In addition, exposure to tanning beds before age 30 increases a person’s risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent. And individuals who regularly use tanning beds are eight times more likely to develop melanoma than people who have never used them. 

David Asp, Ed.D., is a psychologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing.

Read part two of Dr. Asp's personal experience with melanoma.

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