Sunday, 13 May 2018

Skin Cancer: What You Need To Know - by Dr Lauren MacDonald

This week's blog is by Dr Lauren MacDonald in aid of National Sun Awareness Week. Here she shares some helpful tips of what to look out for when detecting skin abnormalities...

It’s National Sun Awareness week here in the UK and I feel it’s my duty to highlight just how dangerous that longed-for “suntan” [read: sun damage] could be at some point in the future. I basically REALLY don’t want any of you going through the same ordeal I’ve been going through for the past few years (and it can, in theory, be prevented).

What Is Skin Cancer?

First things first: Skin cancer (or malignant melanoma if you are using medical lingo) KILLS. Every single day people of all ages and skin tones die from skin cancer. It is one of the most aggressive, sneaky cancers around – and it loves nothing more than to spread to internal organs (particularly the liver, lungs and brain). There are still some people who believe that it’s “only skin cancer'” and, therefore, not a big deal – but these people are sadly incredibly ignorant. Believe me, skin cancer is one nasty beast. In the last few years I’ve undergone four major surgeries and I’m still having infusions of a semi-toxic drug (and have been for the past 18 months). I might well be “cancer-free” at this moment in time, but it’s been one hell of a rough ride to get to this point…

My Story 

I’ve read a few articles in the press about me which have incorrectly claimed, “Lauren never sunbathed due to her pale skin”. Unfortunately this isn’t true and I must take some responsibility for this situation. If I’m honest I loved having a sun-kissed tan in my late teens and early 20’s and I also enjoyed plenty of sports outside (surfing etc) – so I was by no means someone who hid away from the sunshine all summer and yet was unlucky enough to get melanoma anyway (sadly there are plenty of stories like that too). Having said that, I didn’t sunbathe that often (I’d get bored pretty quickly) and I always made sure to wear high factor sunscreen.
Although I’ve got freckles and a few moles on my body, my melanoma didn’t actually originate from a pre-existing mole – that’s another incorrect claim that I’ve read about in the press and one that I’m keen to expel. Instead this is what happened: One evening I was rubbing moisturiser into my legs after a bath and I noticed a tiny, strange-looking pink’ish blemish/lump just above my right knee. It was slightly raised and had tiny blood vessels visible on its surface. I left it for a few weeks and although it didn’t grow in size, it did start itching occasionally. I went to see my GP and expressed my concerns – I’d recently passed by medical school final exams and ironically one of our final practical exams had been a malignant melanoma case. I asked out-right if he thought it could be melanoma but I was reassured that it was likely benign. However I was asked to return if it changed at all. It didn’t change and it didn’t grow any larger. Yet it didn’t disappear either. It remained firmly there on my knee for another six months – right up until I was shaving my legs one day in the shower and I caught it with my razor. This resulted in it bleeding profusely – and caused me to urgently return to my GP. From that moment on, things went a little something like this:
As I said at the beginning of this post, I really, really hope that my story can help prevent you or any of your loved ones going through this. Skin cancer has a cure rate of around 90% if it’s caught early…

What To Look Out For

Keep in mind the ABCDE of warning signs:
A: Asymmetry. If you were to draw a line through any skin blemish/mole/lump, do both sides match in color and shape? If not, it could be a sign of melanoma.
B: Border. Benign marks tend to have smooth, defined borders, while malignant moles might be uneven with rough edges.
C: Colour. If your mark looks dappled or has multiple colors, it could be a sign of melanoma. Benign moles and sunspots tend to be solid and brown.
D: Diameter. Malignant marks tend to be bigger in size, but the best rule of thumb is to monitor your mole or sunspot and see if it grows. If so, it’s time to get it checked out by a GP.
E: Evolving. Again, whilst they might darken and fade with sun exposure, most benign marks stay the same over time. If you notice any changes in a sunspot/mole/patch of skin, you should get it checked out to be on the safe side.

Know Your Skin

A dermatologist will be able to give you a thorough exam (there are plenty of private clinic available if you can’t get a referral through your GP), but it’s definitely worth knowing how to give yourself the once-over at home so you can keep an eye out for warning signs.
After you’ve finished reading this post I’d love you to stand butt-naked in front of a mirror and twirl around until you’ve got a good idea of any marks or moles on your body. This will help you to notice if something is new or changing. Plus it’s good to get naked and admire your beautiful body occasionally anyway 🙂

The Bottom Line

When in doubt, see a doctor!
I really should have trusted my gut instinct and pushed harder for a dermatology referral and biopsy the first time I presented to my GP. I had a bad feeling about that weird little lump – that’s what led me to see my GP in the first place. Of course we’re all human and it’s inevitable that cancers will occasionally get missed by doctors (I’m a doctor myself and I also wasn’t sure whether I was definitely dealing with a melanoma or not). Try and get in tune with your body. If you have an overwhelming feeling that something isn’t quite right, trust your instincts and show it to a doctor – and keep showing it until they listen to your concerns.
By all means continue to enjoy the sunshine and all the joy it brings, just please, please, please respect the rays too. I’ll write another post on my favourite sun protection products later this week. ♡

You can read more of Lauren's articles on her blog

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