When Valerie Rutherford first noticed a brown spot on her face three years ago, she wasn’t worried about it. It was just an age spot, she thought. No way could it be something worse.
“Little did I know it was actually cancer,” says Valerie, now 42.
“I was applying bleaching creams and getting microdermabrasion, thinking that would help,” says the mom of three, a human resources consultant at Carolinas HealthCare System. “But when it started changing shape and spreading across my cheek, my friends and family urged me to get it checked out.”
When she finally went to the dermatologist at Carolinas HealthCare System, she got the shock of her life: Biopsies revealed she had not just one type of skin cancer, but two. Doctors told her she had basal cell carcinoma on her back, and that the spot on her face was the most serious type of skin cancer: melanoma.
After surgery to remove the tumor and plastic surgery to minimize scarring to her face, she’s now on a crusade to make sure her skin cancer doesn’t come back – and that others avoid it too.
“The scars on my face and back remind me every day of what I went through,” she says. “I’m always telling others how to protect themselves.”
With the beach trips and backyard barbecues summertime brings, now’s an important time to heed the dangers of too much sun exposure – and the resulting risk of developing skin cancer.
As you soak up the rays, keep these facts and tips in mind.
Skin Cancer 101
Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells. Most skin cancers are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, but they can also occur on areas of skin not exposed to sunlight. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, accounting for more than half of all cancers.
There are three major types of skin cancer:
- Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma typically start in the basal cells or squamous cells, found on the outer layer of the skin, and are usually found on the face, chest, arms and hands. These cancers rarely spread and can be cured if treated early.
- Melanoma is rarer and more aggressive than other skin cancers and it causes most skin cancer deaths. Melanoma begins in the melanocytes: cells that produce melanin, or skin pigment, which helps protect deeper layers of the skin from the sun’s harmful effects. If found in its early stages, melanoma is nearly always curable.
Who’s at Risk
“Anyone can get skin cancer,” says surgical oncologist and skin cancer specialist Meghan Forster, MD, of Carolinas HealthCare System’s Levine Cancer Institute. “But the biggest risk factors today are sun exposure and tanning beds.”
In addition to those risk factors, you’re more likely to develop skin cancer if you have:
- Pale skin that sunburns easily
- Natural blonde or red hair
- A family history of skin cancer
- Multiple or irregular moles
- A weakened immune system
- Previous skin cancers
- Workplace or other exposure to certain chemicals like arsenic or radium
- Severe sunburn
But, Dr. Forster cautions, everyone should be vigilant. “Anyone can get it,” she says.
Valerie knows this firsthand. “I have no family history of skin cancer,” she says. “I have brown hair, I’m not particularly fair-skinned, and I wear sunscreen.” Still, she admits she grew up not knowing how to best take care of her skin. “I definitely got my fair share of sunburns when I was younger.”
What to Watch For
Just as in Valerie’s case, changes in the skin are the primary indication of skin cancer.
“If you see a spot you’re worried about, get it checked,” says Dr. Forster. “In fact, every person with a history of skin burns should schedule an appointment with a dermatologist – and everyone should get an annual skin exam.”
How to Protect Yourself
Avoiding tanning beds and keeping up with sun safety are the best ways to prevent skin cancer. In addition, keep these top tips in mind:
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours
- Wear hats, sunglasses and sun-protective clothing
- Remember that sun strength is the strongest from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
- Protect your children, as the most damage is usually done in childhood
- Be aware that skin cancer can show up in unlikely places: under the nails, in the mouth, and even in the eyes
Valerie, for one, makes sure to stay on top of safe sun behavior.
“I’ve gotten my children checked out – we actually found a pre-cancerous mole on my son’s toe and got it removed,” she says. “I do my walks in the evenings when the sun’s rays are less harmful. And I always keep my face covered with a wide-brimmed hat during the day.”
“I’m not a victim to the sun,” she says, “but I’m a lot smarter about it.”