The Cancer No One Takes Seriously

Last month, honor of National Melanoma Cancer Awareness Month, Healthy Aging interviewed a dozen folks who have been diagnosed with skin cancer. I digitally recorded their stories, and our photographers took lifestyle photographs. Their voices and images tell their story in the following slideshow.

Surprisingly, I noticed something different in these cancer survivors than other people I had interviewed with other types of cancer, such as breast cancer. The survivors' attitude upon diagnosis was almost systematically laissez faire at first.
While the diagnosis of any type of cancer is so difficult that generations of people still whisper the word or refer to it generically as "C," most people I interviewed were more intrepid about treatment. Their thoughts weren't on radiation or chemo.

There may be reasons why people don't take skin cancer so seriously. For one, the two most common types of skin cancer are generally not lethal.

Skin cancer is the number one diagnosed cancer in the United States. In fact, more than one million people are diagnosed with basal cell or squamous cell (non-melanoma) carcinoma annually. Given the high numbers, we all likely know someone who had a skin cancer removed. However, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are slow growing and are most often not lethal. For example, less than 1,000 people die from non-melanoma cancer annually.

Melanoma is what you do need to worry about and why we need to seek out dermatologists, who are trained to recognize all types of skin cancer.

Most recent statistics estimate that 68,720 new cases of melanoma will have been diagnosed in 2009. That's far less than breast cancer (194,280), colon cancer (106,100) and lung cancer (219,440). But there's one noticeable difference:

We have the tools necessary (our eyes and a hand mirror) to detect possible problem areas. Our follow-up with a dermatologist annually can ensure the cancer is simply removed, before it spreads to our lymph nodes. 

"It's so easy," Elizabeth Encarnacion says, after being diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma at 32. "It's not even like you have to get a mammogram or a colonscopy, you just have to go and have someone look at your skin."

The good news is when melanoma is caught early, it is highly curable, boasting 90 percent to 95 percent survival rates. 

On the other hand, malignant melanoma, when caught later, is a cancer with few effective treatments. The median number of people who are diagnosed with advanced stage melanoma, for example, don't live a year, according to the Melanoma Research Foundation.

And while many say ignorance is bliss; denial can kill.

"The best thing you can do, if you have any doubt, is go and get it checked," says Schilling. "The last thing you want to do is lose your life to something you have been looking at."

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Marci A. Landsmann is managing editor of Healthy Aging. She can be reached at

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