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Skin Doesn't Lie

05 May, 2019

Guest blogger: UNR Student Dana Getreu

The truth about our moles and why it’s important for yearly skin cancer checks.

Yearly physicals are encouraged for all ages. Some experts would argue they become more important as we get older. Sometimes what is left out of a physical can be a skin cancer screening. What is a skin cancer check, and why is it important?

Several national health care organizations recommend monthly self-checks for skin cancer so that we know our own skin and can be proactive about finding skin cancer early when it’s easiest to treat. Everyone is encouraged to be aware of one’s normal pattern of moles, freckles, and blemishes. And it’s important to have a professional skin cancer screening at least once a year by a dermatologist or your primary care physician.

On Friday, April 26, the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Office of Community Faculty, in partnership with Nevada Cancer Coalition (NCC) hosted a Free Skin Check Screening Clinic for faculty, staff, and students. This event provided a unique opportunity to allow the UNR community to take part in an early detection screening.

Dr. Whitney Hovenic, a UNR community faculty board-certified dermatologist and Dr. James B. Harris, a UNR Med faculty member and surgeon, provided brief presentations on the importance of skin protection, skin cancer detection, and skin cancer treatment options for advanced skin cancers, including melanoma.  

As a University of Nevada, Reno student and service learning partner of NCC I felt this event was the perfect chance for me to participate in a skin cancer screening. I’d never had such a screening. But considering how active of a person I am, plus constantly living in the sun, this exam is well overdue. I was a competitive swimmer and student athlete in high school, participating in both Women’s Varsity Golf and Swim teams. Every summer I try my best to get out to Lake Tahoe and just always be outside.

Upon arriving to the event, I was a bit nervous. I have never been one to enjoy doctor visits and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The entire process was a breeze. The first step to the process was filling out a quick one page questionnaire asking simple questions about previous exams and family health, if known.

After completing the form, I was guided to an exam room. For this type of checkup participants were asked to remove clothing expect undergarments. A board-certified dermatologist accompanied by a medical student then did a thorough skin exam, looking for any spots that may be of concern. The whole process took less than 20 minutes. During the exam the doctors were looking for any discoloration, enlarged or oddly shaped moles and other common signs of skin cancer.

The doctor paid special attention to one mole in particular – one on my left. She asked how long it had been there, if I’d noticed any change in color and if the mole or the area around it ever hurt or released any discharge. She told me the mole could possibly be a melanoma. Melanoma occurs when the pigment-producing cells that give color to the skin become cancerous. Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body, and it can spread.

I told her I’d had the mole maybe since high school, but that I wasn’t 100% sure. I’d noticed it getting larger over time, but I’d bypassed that as “not a big deal,” thinking it was “normal.” The mole never hurt or released any discharge. What added to the healthcare provider’s concern and to her recommending the mole be removed for biopsy is my family health history.

My father has had basal cell carcinomas, the most common type of skin cancer. Basal cell carcinomas usually develop on sun-exposed areas of the body, especially the head, face, ears and neck. They rarely spread to other places on the body.

My great-grandfather battled melanoma. Statistics show that one in every 10 melanoma patients has an affected family member.

This type of news can be a bit scary, however during the whole exam the dermatologist more than reassured me that catching a funny-looking mole early is the first step. The next steps can include removing the mole, which can be super easy and can be done in the doctor's office, then sending the mole off to the lab to run tests and see if it contains cancerous cells.

Right away I made an appointment with my primary physician to have it checked and then, to really get ahead of this, I made an appointment to remove the mole.

I cannot stress enough that the biggest take away I can give anyone is to get yourself checked! I put off getting checked and now I realize that the thing I was most worried about was finding the truth. I’ve wondered if my family history might catch up with me.

I don’t have the answers yet of whether my suspicious mole is a melanoma. But what I do know is that skin doesn’t lie. It’s better to know if something on your skin that looks funny should be removed. In my case, I have numerous spots that appear to be just normal moles, and one that needs to be removed.

Do what's best and get checked. Thanks to Nevada Cancer Coalition for putting on this event that allows our community and healthcare providers to come together and do some good. Cancer may not have a cure just yet but taking the proper steps to prevent or find cancers early, when they’re easiest to treat, is definitely the way to go.