According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is, by far, the most common of all cancers. It was estimated that, in the United States in 2013, about 76,690 new melanomas would be diagnosed, and close to 9,480 people were expected to die from it (about 6,280 men and 3,200 women). So why is it not talked about as much as many other cancers?
Jennifer Reed Goddard, who was diagnosed with melanoma in the spring of 2013, isn't sure why people don't talk about it.
"So many people I know have had 'pre-cancerous' things 'burned off' by a dermatologist," said Goddard. "When I explained I had melanoma, people sort of downplayed it. There aren't a lot of people talking about what a threat this type of cancer can be. To have cancer attack your largest organ puts it in perspective a bit more."
Goddard had a mole on her thigh, which she nicked when she was shaving her legs. After the second time she did that, she realized the mole was changing and should be looked at by a doctor. She had a biopsy in early May and received the melanoma diagnosis later that month from her family doctor, James Mears, MD, who practices at the CAMC Family Medicine Center.
"I think many people hear skin cancer and they think about basal cell and squamous cell cancers, which are mistakenly thought to be 'no big deal,'" she said. "When my family doctor performed the biopsy, I thought it wouldn't be a serious diagnosis, but when he told me I had melanoma, it was such a tremendous emotional and physical shock. I was at the appointment to have the stitches from the biopsy procedure removed and, when he delivered that news, I had such a physical reaction--I think I stopped breathing and time seemed to stand still."
The same day, Mears sent her for a blood test to rule out spread to the liver.
"I was numb as I went downstairs to have the blood drawn, and felt about 100 years old as I drove home to tell my husband the news," she said.
"That test was normal, which reassured us that the melanoma had not spread to the liver," Mears said.
However, Goddard had to have a wide-area excision to remove the area around the cancer to ensure that it would not spread. She now has an 8-inch scar on her thigh, as well as an inch-long scar on her groin from the surgery.
"During her major surgery on the thigh, a lymph node biopsy was done," Mears said. "This was negative for any spread to the lymph nodes."
Goddard still has some pain at the incision site and swelling in her leg, though both are improving.
"I will have to visit a dermatologist and have PET scans for the long term [to make sure the cancer doesn't return]," she said. "I'm fortunate that my cancer was diagnosed in time and those are the only things I have to face."
Goddard, who had a very close family friend die from melanoma when he was just 41 years old, believes that sun protection and early detection of melanoma is just as important as that of other cancers that we hear about almost daily.
"In my lifetime, I can count on one hand the number of times I used a tanning bed," she said. "I did, and still do, spend a lot of time outside. I lifeguarded for many years, but I did wear sunscreen. Apparently, I didn't wear enough or apply it as frequently as perhaps I should. I've been faithful about wearing sunscreen, long sleeves and a hat for a long time. Early exposure and sunburns are dangerous. Tanning beds can kill you. We can't hide in the dark all the time, but it is so important to do everything you can to protect your skin, keep children from having early sun damage and be vigilant about early diagnosis."
Goddard is not shy about her melanoma diagnosis and treatment, and says if she can help just one person avoid a similar experience, then it is worthwhile for her to talk about it.
"People went out of their way to help me through everything," she said. "I appreciate CAMC being what it is and making this the best experience it could be."
Mears encourages people to become familiar with the ABCDE's of melanoma and stresses the importance of awareness and prevention.
"The A stands for asymmetry, or a lesion that looks different on one side," he said. "B stands for border. Look for irregular edges. The C represents color. Problem colors are red, white, blue and black. D is for diameter, or the presence of a lesion larger than 0.5 cm. The E stands for evolving, meaning that a lesion is changing or enlarging. People need to get their skin checked regularly, especially if they notice any changes like the ones mentioned here. They also need to make sure they protect their skin from the sun."