By Ellen Marmur, MD, FAAD
As a dermatologist and surgeon, I have delivered the diagnosis of skin cancer to thousands of patients — so imagine my shock when I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma – not once but twice!
My first diagnosis was in 2006. A hard, pink pimple appeared on the side of my nose, yet the pimple never came to a head, and after a week, I couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. It didn't bleed, it didn't itch, it didn't grow, but it also didn't go away. So I asked a colleague to biopsy it for me. When the results came back as basal cell carcinoma, I was still shocked.
Imagine the irony, I am a Mohs surgeon, and now was a patient with basal cell carcinoma who was having Mohs surgery.
In 2009, another "pimple" popped out on my cheek, under my eye. When the biopsy came back as a basal cell carcinoma, I wasn't shocked, just a little depressed. Pretty soon I'd be covered in scars, I thought. I had Mohs surgery again and laser treatments to help fade the scar.
That’s why this year I created Skin Cancer – Take a Hike™. This month, I’m climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa to raise money for the Academy’s SPOT Skin Cancer™ initiative.
No one can prepare themselves for a skin cancer diagnosis, but I shouldn't have been surprised. The fact is, I did everything wrong when I was younger. I had blistering sunburns as a kid; I was on the swim team all through school; and I hit tanning salons before prom. In the summer, my friends and I would slather ourselves in baby oil and have competitions to see who could get tannest. After college, I led wilderness survival trips and was outside on lakes and rivers 12 hours a day. At that point, I knew to wear sunscreen but I'd put it on once and forget to reapply every few hours like you need to. By the time I started studying dermatology in medical school at the age of 25, I already had signs of extreme sun damage, especially on my face.
That said, my face has changed, along with my approach as a doctor and a mom. I am more vigilant with my own health and that of my four kids. I am addicted to sun hats, and my kids and I wear sun-protective rash guards when we're at the beach or pool. Sunscreen is a must.
When I see patients, I'm able to relate when there’s a skin cancer diagnosis and be more of a comfort inside the operating room. I can talk patients through their fears and answer the question “Will it hurt?” with real-world experience. I also give better advice: When I tell patients it's important to wear sunscreen daily, to put on hats in the sun, and to get yearly skin checks, it's not a lecture; it's me sharing my experience. I learned this all the hard way and I am committed to educating as many people as I can about the importance of skin cancer prevention and early skin cancer detection.
Mount Kilimanjaro climb for SPOT
That’s why this year I created Skin Cancer – Take a Hike™. This month, I’m climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa to raise money for the Academy’s SPOT Skin Cancer™ initiative. My goal is to raise $1 million for the SPOT program, and to encourage other Academy members to launch similar initiatives to educate patients about skin cancer and raise money for SPOT.
Recently, I read On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership by Alison Levine, a book that details the author’s insights garnered from experiences in various extreme environments ranging from Mount Everest to the South Pole. I was struck by the fact that Levine forgot to take her sunscreen on summit day during her Mount Everest climb, leaving her unprotected against the sun above the clouds, where the intensity of the sun is much more powerful than it is at sea level. It occurred to me that climbing Mount Kilimanjaro would be an excellent opportunity to remind people that protecting yourself against the sun is essential in all environments—and not limited to a day at the beach.
On July 16, I’ll begin the climb with a team of 10 who have either had skin cancer themselves or have an afflicted family member. We are the first-ever team of skin cancer survivors and advocates to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in the name of skin cancer prevention. Our goal is to shift people's behaviors toward better sun protection during everyday activities. The entire team is passionate about the cause and we’re committed not only to the rigors of training but also to the challenges of fundraising.
Please consider contributing to our cause by donating to Skin Cancer – Take a Hike™. We need your help to reach our $1 million goal. In addition, I hope Academy members embrace the campaign and create their own Skin Cancer – Take a Hike™ programs in their communities.
Dr. Marmur is associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. She is founding director of Marmur Medical in New York City.