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Finding skin cancer early, treating it is key to survival

By Ernie Williamson

The Bulletin

Every time I go to the dermatologist for my regular checkup, it occurs to me that another doctor may have saved my life.

It was during a company-paid physical 30 years ago that a primary care doctor noticed a small black spot on my upper back.

It was not something I could easily see and appeared so innocuous I would not have recognized its deadly potential.

I think you have a melanoma, the doctor told me.  A trip to the dermatologist confirmed the doctor’s suspicions. A few days later the melanoma was removed. (One oddity about the surgery: It I was on the day Sammy Davis Jr. died of cancer, and the hospital was playing a radio station’s musical tribute to him. Not exactly the news this new cancer patient wanted to hear about another cancer patient.)

For most of the next 30 years, I have had regular checkups every three or six months. Several other skin cancers of various types have been found.

I have been sliced and biopsied and have the scars to prove it. But lucky for me, the cancers were all found in early stages.

So, every time I go to my dermatologist nowadays, I wonder if I would still be alive if I had not had a physical from that doctor.

That long-ago first melanoma was shocking, but not surprising. I am fair-skinned and grew up in Southern California.  When I was not at the beach or a friend’s pool, I was out in the sun playing baseball or tennis.

We used sunscreen and wore hats sporadically in those days.  It just was not California cool and, frankly, a lot of parents thought a good tan was a sign of a healthy lifestyle. That attitude lingers today, I think.

When we moved to Houston, I remember sending my daughter and her friend to stay with my parents for a week. They returned with beet-red faces.

They looked so cute, my mom said.

Despite all the information available on preventing skin cancer, the statistics are startling.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation:

• In the U.S., more than 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day.

• More than two people die from the disease every hour.

• More people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the U. S. than all other cancers combined.

• Having five or more sunburns doubles your risk for melanoma.

• At least one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70.

As we head for the summer months, here is what the Skin Cancer Foundation advises to avoid getting skin cancer:

• Seek shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

• Do not get sunburned.

• Avoid tanning and never use tanning beds.

• Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV blocking sunglasses.

•  Use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

I wish I had followed this advice in my younger days. But thanks to a company that provided company physicals and an observant doctor, I am still here.

I never saw that doctor again so I never thanked him. So, thanks doc.

(Contact Ernie at Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)


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