Skin Cancer: Signs, Symptoms and Therapy

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Topics include: Understanding and Treatment

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, and the incidence is rising yearly in the U.S. The most frequently diagnosed form of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma, which affects 1 million Americans each year. The most serious form of skin cancer is melanoma. In this ihealth program sponsored by Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Dr. Mary Martini and her patient, Annie, join host Andrew Schorr to discuss skin cancer symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. Dr. Martini is a dermatologist on the medical staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and chief of the Division of General Dermatology and assistant professor of Dermatology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Annie, a former heavy tanning booth user, shares her story of when she was first diagnosed with melanoma, what led her to Dr. Martini and how she’s doing today. Hear what she’s learned about prevention, early detection and why she feels so strongly about her relationship with her physician.

Dr. Martini details the importance of screening and early detection. She talks about the various ways to prevent damage from the sun, including which sunscreens are best for protecting yourself, times of day to avoid and protective clothing to lessen exposure. Dr. Martini explains how skin cancer is most often treated, including topical chemotherapies and surgery. When detected early, skin cancer can be successfully treated with surgery. Dr. Martini speaks about the importance of raising awareness and why early detection is important to prevent the cancer from spreading to the lymph nodes. If you are searching for information on sun protection or if you or someone you know is affected by skin cancer, this program provides a wealth of information on this all-too-important topic.

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Andrew Schorr:

Hello. This is Andrew Schorr broadcasting live on ihealth on, the Northwestern Memorial Hospital website. Thank you so much for being with us. We do this every two weeks connecting you with leading Northwestern experts discussing very significant health topics, giving you authoritative information for you and your family and always introducing you to inspiring patients.

As we have summer, right, we have sunshine, hopefully, and you want to get out in it. And what comes up of course is skin cancer. The most common form of cancer, a million Americans every year being diagnosed with some form of skin cancer. If you follow the political news you know that one of our candidates, John McCain of course was treated for melanoma, one of the most serious forms of skin cancer. He seems to be doing just fine, but it is not a diagnosis you'd want to have. And as we discuss that in today's program you're going to learn that it's not just the sun but, guess what folks, those tanning booths, they have radiation for your skin too. You're going to hear a lot of warnings about that so that know the straight scoop about what is dangerous to your skin and how you can lower your risk of skin cancer for yourself or a loved one.

What about all those sunscreens, sun blocks? How much should you use? Which one? What number? What should it have in it? What ingredients to look for, we're going to cover all that in the next hour.

I want you to meet someone who was affected by this personally. I want to go up the road to Vernon Hills, Illinois, off I-94 near Highland Park, just to the west there. Annie Christy Patrick has just been married few months. I want to tell you her story for a second. So she's getting married, 42 years old. Shopping for a wedding dress in January. And there she is trying on new dresses. Her friend Amy is with her. And Amy says, Well, what's that on your back? That doesn't look good. And then her sister, meaning Annie's sister, older sister, Py, who has probably been telling her what to do her whole life. She's a nurse, she says, What's that? Get that checked. Well, Annie finally did and she's going to tell you about that circumstance about how that happened, but it turned out to be melanoma, this very serious form of skin cancer. Fortunately it was found pretty early. You're going to learn more about that, the stages of melanoma.

Annie, welcome to the program. So here you are when you were younger you'd go to tanning booths. We're going to talk about that. You get married. You went to Aruba even with this funny spot on your back. And I know you're pretty fair. You got pretty sunburned down on your honeymoon, too, didn't you?


Oh, it was horrible. I was out scuba diving, and I got so sunburned I had to stay inside my hotel room for a few days.

Andrew Schorr:

I have that image of that Ben Stiller movie where he married the woman, but anyway on his honeymoon she got terribly sunburned, and that is no fun. But apparently you had some spots on you that were maybe suspicious anyway. That's what Amy pointed out to you and your sister Py. But you were back married, back with one of your children going to the doctor for not you but your kid. What happened then?


Oh, with a history of melanoma in my family and my son showing me that he had a spot in the groin area of a large mole, I thought, well, it was so big maybe it needed to be checked. So I took him to my family doctor, and his name is Dr. Polland and he took one look at it and he said, Oh, no, no, no, no. This is okay. You need to see a dermatologist just to have it checked. I said, Well, you know, everyone has been giving me grief. Will you look at my back real quick? I didn't even have an appointment. And he took one look at it and sent me to see Dr. Lazar at Highland Park Hospital.

Andrew Schorr:

That's a dermatologist. He wanted you to go see a dermatologist.


Immediately. As a matter of fact, they saw me within I think an hour, hour and a half.

Andrew Schorr:

And what did he say?


He did a biopsy and said he'd be in touch in a couple days. And then he called me on Friday. I'd gone I think it was like Tuesday or Wednesday, and on Friday he called me and said I want to discuss this biopsy with you but I want to do it in person, so how about I meet you in my office on Saturday. Which kind of scared the heck out of me. But I did, and that's when he told me I had melanoma, and explained it to me and told me it was caught early, and he wanted me to see a surgeon and have it surgically removed and explained the process of that. Again, you know, myself I thought, skin cancer. It's not a big deal. It's not like having leukemia or any of the other cancers. I mean, it's not really cancer is what I thought. Big surprise to me.

Andrew Schorr:

Right. But you had melanoma in your family.


Oh, yeah. My dad had two different sites of melanoma. My sister had a spot on her shoulder that turned into such a large area that they had to remove her deltoid and do three or four skin grafts off her back to cover her shoulder.

Andrew Schorr:

Oh, my.


But yet I continued to sun bathe and more scarily I loved the sun booth. I loved to go into, stand up and get ten minutes of pure zapping myself. It was relaxing. It felt good. I left with a beautiful, glowing tan. Little did I know what I was doing to myself.

Andrew Schorr:

Right. I'm a little older than you, and this man I'm going to mention was older than me, but folks my age or older will remember the dapper, handsome George Hamilton, the actor. He was always suntanned and looked like I just stepped--you know, Mr. Palm Beach or Riviera, Monaco, something like that. And we would equate that tanned look to health. Well, we're going to hear, folks, as we go on in this program that that is not necessarily all the case, and despite what the tanning booth industry has been saying about the health aspects and getting your vitamin D that you need for a variety of reasons, this is not the way to do it.

So the story goes on with Annie that, Annie, it was suggested to you by your dermatologist in Highland Park that you really ought to get down to Northwestern to a skin cancer specialist because you were at risk for other lesions, if you will, and you had this whole family history. So that brings you to what specialist at Northwestern?


Dr. Martini.

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Page last updated on December 18, 2013