ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — The summer sun means more time outside, but it can also set you up for serious medical issues years down the road.
I was not on the air for about a week back in January. As much as I’d like to say it was a vacation, this was pretty much the opposite.
I had skin cancer surgery.
Since “Skin Cancer Awareness Month” just wrapped up, I thought I’d share part of my story with you and let doctors explain the damage that too much sun can do. Hopefully, this will convince you on just how important it is to wear your sunscreen.
A semi-enthusiastic thumbs up showed the start of a busy couple of days this past January, but the real beginning was likely decades ago. That is when doctors say our behavior can set the stage for skin cancer.
“Cumulative sun exposure is the primary risk factor. Sunburns, particularly sunburns that one has earlier in life can be an additional risk factor,” said Dr. Melissa Stenstrom, a dermatologist based out of Rockford. “People who have fair skin, people who have light eyes, those who are immunosuppressed, so on medications that suppress their immune system, whether it be for a transplant or other medical condition, they’re going to be at a little higher risk. And, obviously, those who work outdoors or just have a high degree of cumulative sun exposure throughout their lifetime.”
Stenstrom spotted the problem. I had already had a biopsy, a little piece of skin removed, months before this. The results came back: basal cell carcinoma.
“They present like a pimple or a non-healing sore. It might bleed easily, it might feel a little tender or sensitive to the touch, and they tend to grow slowly,” Stenstrom said. “So, often times, they’re not recognized even for months by the patient, and they think, ‘this thing is not leaving. Why is it not going away,’ and they’ll come and ask what it is.”
That is pretty much what happened to me. Stenstrom found it, and Dr. Andrew Jun, otolaryngology at UW Health, was going to fix it.
“It’s slightly more translucent, it has a slight blush to it,” Jun said. “It’s, like, shinier and it’s slightly more red than the rest of the skin.”
He prepped me for a procedure known at “Mohs,” but this was not my first rodeo with the procedure. I had three separate pieces of skin removed on different parts of my face almost exactly two years ago.
Jun has taken care of all of the cancerous spots. This one on my nose was a little smaller than a dime, and “Mohs” seemed to be the right move because of where it was.
It is best for skin in specific areas.
“Primarily the face, and especially around the eyes, ears, nose or mouth,” Stenstrom said.
Of course. there was always the option to leave it alone. Basal cell is not as dangerous as melanoma, but not doing anything could have created problems.
“It gets slowly larger, almost imperceptibly to the patient. So, at first it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it grows deeper and wider with time, so eventually it could invade nerves, blood vessels, become a large non-healing sore that can lead to pretty extensive removal, and then closure, which can lead to plastic surgery,” Stenstrom said. “So, the longer something is left, the more difficult it is to remove.”
This was the first step of a two-month “Mohs” process. The skin that was removed headed to the lab, where it was sliced very thin.
“The idea is that you’re removing what you see of the skin cancer with a very small margin of normal appearing skin and then processing the tissue in such a way that it evaluates the entire 360-degree margins,” Stenstrom said. “So, the lateral and base is entirely evaluated here in the clinic by the surgeon.”
In Part 2, we will look at day two of my “Mohs” surgery, as well as add a celebrity voice to the skin cancer safety advice message.