Dr. Ellen Marmur's personal story
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 (all signs of cancer), 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, the most common form of skin cancer, I was still shocked.
To treat my basal cell carcinoma, I had Mohs surgery. Mohs surgery is a treatment that allows the dermatologist to remove the visible part of the skin cancer and also the cancer cells not visible to the naked eye. The dermatologist removes skin that may contain cancer cells one layer at a time and examines it under a microscope. This layer-by-laser approach continues until no more cancer cells are found. Patients remain in the treatment room while the dermatologist examines the skin layers. My surgery took almost a half a day and it went well. The scar on the side of my nose is barely noticeable. 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. This time I was pretty sure it was only a blemish. A colleague injected steroid into the bump, and, like a pimple, it shrunk. But it returned within a few days and then persisted. That's when I knew. 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.
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.
Then three years ago, all of the sudden, I had a flash of two things I had to do while I still could. One was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro; the second, to educate others about skin cancer. I was able to achieve both with my inaugural Skin Cancer, Take a Hike!™ climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2014. Since then, I have participated in two more Skin Cancer, Take a Hike!™ events in New York and Patagonia, Chile. And, after the tremendous success of these climbs, I am refueled by my passion: skin cancer prevention.