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Adjusting to life post-melanoma

Cancer: Melanoma, a malignant cancer of the skin, is diagnosed in approximately 1 million Americans

Posted: May 6, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 6, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Dr. Alexander Black examines a patient's moles during a skin screening, which is the first step for physicians in detecting a possible melanoma.

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If you see Sheri Clement outdoors, you can be sure she’ll be wearing a big floppy hat and lots of sunscreen.

Her strict skin-protective measures are a result of being diagnosed not once, but twice, with melanoma, a malignant cancer of the skin.

About two years ago, Clement, a Valencia resident, had noticed a mole on her back that seemed odd. She had shown the mole to her primary care physician, whom Clement said didn’t seem that concerned. Clement was given a dermatologist referral, which got lost in the mail. She forgot all about it.

Months passed before the mole caught her attention again, when it started to crack and bleed. Clement asked her boss, who also happened to be a melanoma survivor, to inspect the mole. He told Clement that she could not leave the office until an appointment with a dermatologist was made.

That scared her into action.

“I call him my guardian angel,” Clement said. “I had all the signs, but didn’t act on it. It seems silly now that I waited so long.”

The mole was biopsied and determined to be a late-stage melanoma. Clement went into surgery shortly thereafter and emerged with an 8-inch-long scar.

“When they opened up my back, they removed the tumor and some lymph nodes,” she said. “I am still surprised. No one in my family had ever had melanoma. I had been in the sun a bit as a kid, but not with baby oil and a reflector or anything.”

Statistics, signs
According to the American Melanoma Foundation, more than 1 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year. Melanoma is staged on a scale of one to four, with stage one indicating a thin, less severe melanoma and stage four indicating an advanced cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.

Current estimates are that 1-in-5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime and, sadly, one American dies of melanoma every 61 minutes.

“Melanoma is relatively common, and has increased in incidences over the last several decades because of what people used to do with excess sun exposure, such as receiving blistering burns in childhood or adolescence, before we knew not to do that,” said oncologist Alexander Black, clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California Los Angeles and staff physician at Valencia’s Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital.

For prevention purposes, Black suggested wearing a sunscreen with at least a sun-protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, wearing sunglasses that provide protection from UVA or UVB rays and wearing a hat, especially when there is thinning hair or a bald scalp to consider.

“Men, in particular, should strongly consider this, because the scalp is a place where you can get melanoma, but can’t see it,” he said.

According to Black, the key to beating melanoma is early detection, such as through consistent self-examinations.

“You’re looking for a pigment lesion of a mole that looks like it’s changing around the border or its size, or it has an ulcer bleeding with it,” Black said. “Usually, the initial diagnosis is made through a punch biopsy in a dermatologist's office.
With larger tumors, there is anesthesia involved with the removal, but there is usually a rapid recovery.”

Lifestyle changes
Clement recovered quickly enough from her melanoma surgery in 2009, and soon after resumed her busy lifestyle as a junior high school teacher and mother of three children: Jordan, 15; Taylor, 13; and Jacob, 9.

She made additional changes to her lifestyle, including following nutritional advice she acquired through “The Cancer Diet.”

“The book suggests eating red meat only once a month, so I generally eat organic chicken instead. Also, instead of snacking on cheese crackers, I eat pumpkin seeds now. It’s an easy way to stay positive and healthy,” Clement said.

The Clement family continues to enjoy outings to Southern California, with a few adjustments. Her children apply sunscreen throughout the day and wear hats, while Clement stays underneath a tent that shields her skin from the sun.

“There are still things I can do, but I make sure that I’m always wearing my (SPF) 50 sun block, even when I’m in the car, even on a cloudy day,” she said. “You just make adjustments.”

Sharing her story
Despite these precautions, six weeks ago, while Clement was trying on new clothes in a dressing room, she felt a lump under her armpit. This time she promptly went to her dermatologist for an examination and biopsy. It was a melanoma, which was immediately remove — along with 18 lymph nodes — through surgery.

 “There’s a bit of soreness there, since it’s in such an odd spot,” Clement said as she gingerly lifted her arm.

Sharing her scar is something Clement is not shy about. She recently showed it to a stranger at a store when a casual conversation turned to an opportunity to talk about skin cancer.

“Until you see it, it’s not real for most people,” Clement said.

An MRI has revealed that Clement currently does not have tumors anywhere in her body, but she’s not taking any chances. Routine skin exams are now part of her hectic life.

“Hopefully, I’ll be lucky enough to stay one step ahead of it. I was only 40 when the mole turned up,” Clement said. “You don’t have to wait to go to a doctor. There are free skin-cancer screening clinics everywhere. If you think you may have a melanoma, don’t wait like I did.”

Free skin-cancer screenings for adults 18 and older will be available at The Health Fair Expo from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, May 10, at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center, 22900 Market Street, Newhall. For more information about melanoma, visit www.melanomafoundation.org.

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