They seemed hardly noticeable, just three reddish blemishes. One showed up on my cheek last summer, followed by another on my chin line and a third on my forehead. I thought they'd just fade away, but they didn't. Sometimes the skin would become scaly, flake off, or develop a sore. So on the advice of my family, I made an appointment with Plastic Surgeon, Doctor Mark Potenza.
After looking at the blemishes, Dr. Potenza said, "My guess is that it's a pre-cancer called actinic keratosis."
For the first time in my life, a doctor used the word "cancer" as a possible diagnosis. Luckily the word was "pre-cancer." To Dr. Potenza, my symptoms were fairly classic for the condition called actinic keratosis, a "patchy area, maybe pink in color, dry, flaky. The most common dry flaky pink growth is actinic keratosis which is considered pre-cancer," he explained.
I also had many of the risk factors associated with skin cancer: fair skin, light hair, and a love for being outdoors, even though I would sunburn easily and often. "It takes 20 years for the negative effects of the sun to show themselves in the skin," Dr. Potenza explained.
In one of the examining rooms was a chart that was not only informative, but alarming. It featured a graph that showed a dramatic increase in the incidence of melanoma from 1950 through 1995. So as a reporter for CNY Central, I decided to document my situation in hopes of raising awareness about the growing threat of skin cancer.
Dr. Potenza says in his practice, he's seen a continued increase in the incidence of skin cancer. "The incidence of pre-cancerous growth and skin cancer is on the rise, clearly and you know this is Syracuse, it's not the sun belt and I see a lot of skin cancer and pre-cancer. I probably remove, my average, almost 100 a month of skin cancers and probably 3 times that of pre-cancers," he said.
His finding was substantiated by Jason Warchal of the American Cancer Society's Syracuse and Rochester chapter. "We're seeing an increase in the amount of melanomas that people are being diagnosed with but we need to better educate here in Central New York," said Warchal.
Actinic keratosis is associated with two types of skin cancer, basal cell and squamous cell. Both are considered common forms of cancer. They rarely spread to other parts of the body.
It's quite different from the most dreaded and deadly form of skin cancer is called melanoma. Melanoma usually shows up as a dark irregular mole and can grow into something grotesque. Melanoma can spread cancer to other parts of your body.
According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma accounts for less than 5 percent of skin cancer cases, but causes the large majority of skin cancer deaths. Last year, 70,230 Americans were expected to be diagnosed with melanoma, while 8,790 would die from the disease. The probability of contracting melanoma over a lifetime is 1 in 36 for men and 1 in 55 for women.
When asked why skin cancer is increasing, Dr. Potenza said, "I think it's awareness. We're diagnosing it more. We're seeing it more. But also sun exposure and potentially the breakdown of the ozone layer which could be protective to the ultra violet radiation that we're receiving." He also says recent research has found a connection to the use of tanning beds.
According to the American Cancer Society, the risk factors for skin cancer include:-exposure to the sun's ultra violet rays-moles on your skin-fair skin-freckles-light hair-a family history of skin cancer.
Warchal says people need to take precautions by avoiding exposure to the sun between 10:00am and 2:00pm when the ultra violet rays are most intense. Plus, he says, people should practice SLIP, SLOP, SLAP AND WRAP:-SLIP- slip on a shirt-SLOP- slop on sunscreen-SLAP- slap on a hat-WRAP- wrap on sunglasses
Dr. Potenza says people should carefully monitor moles on their skin. "Most moles are normal moles, but there are some moles that are abnormal, a precursor to melanoma. There's characteristics to a mole that heightens one's concern for melanoma such as size, larger than 6 millimeters is classically what we describe as suspicious for melanoma, irregular borders around the pigmented growth, variable colors maybe a dark brown, lighter brown even a little reddish."
Though I don't appear to be at risk for melanoma, I would still need to undergo minor surgery to rule out basal cell or squamous cell cancer that is associated with actinic keratosis. Most often the biopsy becomes the cure, but Dr. Potenza warned, "If the report came back as skin cancer, yes you'd need another procedure which would typically be a wider incision...deeper with stitches."
I found the procedure to be quick, simple and painless thanks to a local anesthetic. Once the areas were marked off, Dr. Potenza would simply slice off a layer of skin. In about 15 minutes the whole procedure was over. Some anti-biotic ointment and a bandage was placed over the incisions. Three vials containing my skin samples were sent off to a lab.
The following week, Dr. Potenza notified me that the lab results showed there was no cancer present in the skin samples. But I will have to return later this month for a full-body examination and for the rest of my life, I would have to remain vigilant for any signs of skin cancer.
Watch Jim Kenyon??s "The Skin You're In" this Wednesday and Thursday on NBC 3 News at 5.