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How a melanoma scare – and a great dermatologist – made me more serious about skincare

Russ_Banham By Russ Banham

Couple sitting on a boardwalk

At my annual checkup, the doctor noticed an oddly shaped mole of a worrisome size on my back. “Have your wife take a peek at it now and then to make sure it doesn't change," he instructed me. He was pretty certain that it was just, well, a mole.

By “change," he meant grow in size or height, develop asymmetrical borders, alter color, or otherwise evolve into something that it currently was not. I'd have monitored it myself were it not smack dab in the middle of my back. My life was in my wife's hands, or so I told her. Was I worried? A little. My father and aunt had skin cancer.

I also hail from the Baby Boom generation of kids whose moms implored us to “Go outside and get some color on your face." Being too pale was considered the sign of a recluse, someone with poor athletic skills who read Archie comics indoors all the time. As teenagers growing up in Queens, New York, summers with my pals were enjoyed at Jones Beach, ogling the waves (yeah, right) for hours at a time. In the dog days of August, my attire was a pair of cutoff jeans and sunglasses, no shirt or shoes. The sun had most of my body to burn to a crisp. I was a sitting duck for solar radiation, tallying up more sunburns than I can count.

I hail from the generation of kids whose moms implored us to “Go outside and get some color on your face.”

After one month of watching the peculiar mole, my wife gave up. “I can't tell if it's changing," Jenny sighed. “This is too much to ask."

Who could blame her? She wasn't a doctor. So I contacted the real thing, a dermatologist a friend recommended.

Will Kirby, DO, is a local celebrity in Los Angeles, where I live. Will won the Big Brother competition in 2001, taking home enough money to finish his medical training. In his younger years, he had a basal cell carcinoma (a type of skin cancer) removed from his leg, which set his life's course. Will took one look at the mole on my back and said “Not good." He snipped it off and had a biopsy performed of the tissue. The diagnosis: A dysplastic nevus, a precursor to melanoma, a skin cancer. A nevus is a mole; dysplastic is atypical.

Within days I was on my stomach as Dr. Kirby removed more tissue from the site of the mole, then sutured a two-inch long line. Three months later, he took a peek and liked what he saw. “Not to worry," he said.

Since then, Dr. Kirby and I have become friends. This is often the case with a skin cancer patient and his dermatologist. Every three months for the next two years, I was in his office. Dr. Kirby surveyed the landscape of my body, circling suspicious moles with a pen. In the eight years of my visits to date, I've had three more dysplastic nevi (plural of nevus) removed and multiple other moles snipped away before they could get worse. “That's what we do here — snip, snip, snip away cancer," Dr. Kirby said when I called for an interview. “The key is to be vigilant. The sooner we snip, the better the outcome."

So far, so good: None of the three types of skin cancer I've attracted have entered the thornier territory of Stage 2.  I even had a topical procedure done on my face, the site of several snips to reduce the risk of future cancers. The medication contained a substance called ingenol that kills abnormal cells that lead to skin cancer. My face looked like a deflated football for a week, until the dead skin sloughed off. I'm promised at least five years of a cancer-free face, at which point I will undergo the same procedure.

This is now my future. Certainly, I'm to blame for the sun exposure of my youth. While I apply sunscreen with SPF 50 every morning, and wear a hat on hikes and the rare weekend at a Malibu beach, the blistering sunburns of my youth will forever take their toll. I will always develop odd-looking moles. Dr. Kirby will give them the once-over and snip when he must. He's my younger big brother now, looking out for me for life.

When found and treated early, the  estimated 5-year survival rate for melanoma is 99%. But new therapies offer hope for even advanced cases. In 2015, former President Jimmy Carter, then 91, beat metastatic melanoma that had spread to his liver and brain. Ask your primary care physician for a skin cancer screening at your next physical.  Aetna members have access to the Teladoc ® Dermatology service, which allows you to upload photos of worrisome moles via your computer, tablet or smartphone. A dermatologist will respond within two days.

Teladoc is a registered trademark of Teladoc, Inc.

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About the author

Russ Banham is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and author of more than two-dozen books, including his latest, Higher.

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