Changing a Sunshine State of Mind

Changing a Sunshine State of Mind

Three Local Skin Cancer Survivors Share Their Stories and Lessons Learned

Tammy Whitehead basically lived at the beach every weekend as a teenager.  “We used baby oil to get fried,” she remembers.  Like most kids, she was focused on how dark of a tan she could get, not the SPF of her sunscreen.  But 20 years later, around the age of 40, she started seeing the effects of her sun-worshipping ways.  “I’ve got that fair complexion with freckles,” Whitehead explains.  “These little skin cancers started popping up . . . I got spots on my shoulders, my chest.”  Now at age 53, she sees a dermatologist regularly.  Being proactive has paid off— they have caught any suspicious moles or spots early on.

One spot that reddened and stayed red would end up being her most significant.  “When I finally went in, they biopsied the spot and they cut the size of a quarter out of my cheek,” she recalls.  Despite the fact it was her largest removal, doctors said they caught what turned out to be basal cell carcinoma early enough.

Sobering Facts

The numbers for skin cancer are sobering.  Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer in the U.S.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every five American will develop skin cancer during their lifetime.  Each year, over 3 million Americans are treated for skin cancer, and in Florida alone, over 600 people die of melanoma.

The three most common types of skin cancer diagnosed are: malignant melanoma, basal cell carcinoma (BCC), and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).

Malignant melanoma is a cancerous growth that frequently develops in the skin.  It can also form in the digestive tract, eyes, lymph nodes, and membrane lining of the spinal cord and brain.  It is responsible for 75 percent of all skin cancer deaths.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most commonly diagnosed type of skin cancer.  It develops on areas that get regular sun exposure like the face and hands.  It rarely spreads and is usually treatable because of its slow growth rate.  Lesions appear brown, black or blue.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) appears on body parts with high levels of sun exposure like the face, lips, and back.  Lesions are rough, scaly, lumpy or flat, and may bleed easily and are flesh colored or blue-ish red.

No One Is Immune

“For my generation, we were all sun worshipers and it was the healthy thing to do,” recalls Carol Vonesh.  The 68-year-old Central Florida resident, has had several pre-cancers removed, but last year she had a basal cell tumor excised from the back of her neck in-between her shoulders.  Carol visits her dermatologist every six months now and wears sunscreen every day.  “Its part of my routine now.  Every day before I put makeup on, my lotions all have sunscreen,” Vonesh states.

Much of the damage done by the sun occurs during the early years of exposure.  No one is immune to the risk of skin cancer, although individuals with less pigmentation are generally at higher risk for contracting non-melanoma or melanoma skin cancers than darker-skinned individuals.  Certain conditions can increase one’s risk of developing skin cancer:

  • Lighter skin color
  • Family or personal history of skin cancer
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • Indoor tanning
  • A history of sunburns, particularly early in life
  • Skin that burns, freckles, or reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Blond or red hair
  • Certain types of moles

Depending on the diagnosis and location, there are several methods of treatment for skin cancer: Mohs micrographic surgery, involves removing layers of tissue with a scalpel or curette; excisional surgery, in which a doctor uses a scalpel to remove the entire tumor and the surrounding tissue as a safety margin; curettage and electrodesiccation in which the doctor scrapes a small legion and then burns the remaining area with a laser; and cryosurgery, in which the doctor uses liquid nitrogen to destroy the tumor.

Prevention

Donna Bobo is no stranger to cancer.  She was diagnosed with leukemia three years ago at the age of 61.  But when she recently found out she had melanoma, she was beyond surprised.  “I was shocked.  I do chemo for the leukemia and then I got hit with this,” she shares.  Unlike Whitehead and Vonesh, Bobo didn’t spend countless summer days out on the beach working on a “golden glow,” yet she still got a very serious skin cancer diagnosis.  “She [the doctor] actually did a surgery right there in the office and took the whole cancerous mole out,” Bobo adds.

Skin cancer is the most diagnosed type of cancer.  And while it is also the most preventable type of cancer, like Bobo, you don’t have to spend hours at a time outside to be at risk.  

  • Avoid the sun during peak hours, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Wear sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher year-around.  Sunscreen cannot block all harmful rays, but it does help in overall sun protection.  Be sure to reapply every two hours or after sweating, swimming, etc.
  • Wear protective clothing.  Long sleeve shirts, wide brimmed hats, and sunglasses with 99-100 percent UVA/UVB protection.  
  • Avoid sun tanning and tanning beds.  
  • Watch out for sun-sensitizing medications.  Some over the counter drugs and prescriptions like certain antibiotics can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight.
  • Check your skin regularly and report any changes to moles, birthmarks, freckles or bumps to your doctor.

There’s no getting around the fact that Florida is the Sunshine State.  The beautiful weather is one of the main reasons people visit and move here each year.  Even Whitehead still spends summer days outside as a counselor at Auburndale City Camp.  But she encourages kids to wear protection and avoid getting burned.  From her own experience, Vonesh recommends adults see their doctor regularly.  “There are areas on your body you can’t readily see and they have a more trained eye,” she points out.  And even those who are not engaging in outdoor activities, like Bobo, still need to be aware.  All three skin cancer patients agree: have fun this summer, but stay safe.  

story by BONNY JOHNSON

portrait by LUIS BETANCOURT

Categories: Features, Health News

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