Though you know you should be wearing sunscreen every single day and protecting your skin from dangerous rays, life has a way of setting in and distracting you from that morning lather. The hard truth to remember though? It’s estimated that between 40 to 50 percent of Americans who live to the age of 65 will be diagnosed with skin cancer. In fact, around 4 million cases are reported each year.
“Cancer of the skin is very common. Spectrum of cancer risk runs from fairly innocuous requiring treatment to life threatening,” dermatologist and plastic surgeon Dr. Andrew Elkwood, MD says. “Skin cancer is exceptionally common especially in fair skin people with a history of skin exposure.”
In addition to applying and reapplying sunscreen regularly, Dr. Elwood notes that yearly skin checks and keeping a watchful eye on any mole changes will be your best bet at preventing a scary diagnosis. Take it from those who have experienced this disease, like the ones below, it’s not a conversation you want to have with your doctor.
In honor of Skin Cancer Awareness Month, let their words of wisdom and their inspiring journeys kick-start your effort to take better care of your skin, ASAP.
Just after she had her first child, then-29-year-old Christy Prunier was diagnosed with basal cell skin cancer on her face. “I’m from Italian descent and tanned easily, so I never imagined I would get skin cancer. I was so wrong,” she said.
How did she know something was wrong? She didn’t. In fact, she just thought she had a pesky zit under her eye. “It wouldn’t go away. Every time I washed my face it would bleed. That is when I went to a dermatologist and it was diagnosed. I had to have Mohs surgery to have it removed. They had to scrape four layers in order to get clear margins. It was incredibly scary as a new mom,” she shared.
Now the founder of her own skin care line, Willing Beauty, Prunier looks back on her experience and urges women to start getting checked as early as possible, because skin cancer is common but preventable. “Healthy skin is all about prevention and starting young. It is somewhat ironic that I was diagnosed at 29, just months after my daughter, Willa, was born—and I didn’t want her or other girls (or moms) to repeat my story, which is why we created the company,” she shared. “‘Willa’, my daughter’s name, means protector, which I didn’t realize at the time of her birth. So I guess you could say that Willa and I were destined to create a skin care company committed to helping women of all ages make smarter skin care choices.”
In November of 2008, it was a regular skin check that proved life-altering for Liz Toombs, who was just 25 years old at that time. “I had no warning signs. I started getting annual checkups at the dermatologist after being encouraged by my mom to do so. I have always been fair-skinned with light eyes and light hair, making me prone to sunburns. To add to that, I have several moles and had poor tanning practices in my teens and early twenties (not applying sunscreen and frequent tanning bed use). Mom thought it would be smart for me to have someone keep an eye on my skin for all of those reasons,” she explained.
At first she didn’t think skin cancer was a big deal and something that could be easily removed, but she quickly learned how wrong she was when she learned about her diagnosis. “I got a HUGE wake-up call when I was on the table for my surgery. The doctor was so kind as she talked me through what to expect after surgery. She let me know I would be uninsurable because of this diagnosis, and asked if I already had health and life insurance in place (fortunately, I did),” she explained. “She said that if they didn’t get all the cancer in the first surgery, I would have to come back for another one (luckily, only the one surgery was required). I was shocked to learn how skin cancer can grow and spread if not treated early. Until that day, I had no idea the nightmare my life could have become had we not caught the cancer so early.”
Now the founder of an interior design company, Polka Dots & Rosebuds, Liz encourages those around her to avoid the temptation to be tan and to prioritize health instead. “Embrace your skin tone and practice sun safety. I chased after a standard of beauty that didn’t fit my genetic makeup and, as a result, suffered the consequences. Years later, I have finally learned to love my skin and to treat it well,” she said. “I wish I had known that my pursuit of being tan would lead me to have 14 scars from dermatological surgeries over the span of eight years. I’d like to think I would have made different choices.”
Not only has this brave, strong woman survived breast cancer once, but she’s battled it three times. First at the age of 40, and most recently last year. “In late 2001 I noticed a dome shaped bump abnormality on my right breast, directly on the left of my nipple. I saw a general physician who told me, ‘It is nothing, just a mole, see I have one on my neck’ and he showed me his neck,” Cocuzza explained. “Well, of course, I wanted a second opinion. I saw a dermatological surgeon who diagnosed me after a biopsy with invasive cell carcinoma and I had Mohs surgery a week later.” Then last year, she had two experiences with crusty bumps, one of which was invasive and one non-invasive, and had surgery to remove them all.
“What surprised me the most about skin cancer is that it is not just on the surface of the skin, which I always thought it was, it can affect the inside cells and can go very deep and spread to become invasive,” she shared. “Before getting my first skin cancer, I wish I knew how deep the cancerous cells could go and how wide they could spread and how big of a physical scar can be left behind. It can spread to the tissues, bones, and nearby lymph nodes.”
Her greatest advice to others is to read, research and protect yourself. And more importantly, don’t be embarrassed by your pale skin. “Just the other day I was at a daytime party and all the women were sitting out on the deck facing the sun to get sun on their faces and start their summertime tanning. I sat in a shaded area, out of the sun. One of the ladies said that ‘people like you worry too much, if you get skin cancer again, you get it again, people go through a lot worse.’ Can you believe that comment?”
READERS—Have you been diagnosed with skin cancer? What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned? Any advise you’d like to give?