After years of watching his wife and daughters take sun protection seriously—hats and sunblock were part of their regular routine, along with visits to a dermatologist—David Duckworth took advantage of a free skin cancer screening to see what a specialist might make of the freckles and dark spots he could easily see on his face, arms and shoulders.
As it turned out, those were the least of his worries. "It was my chest, where I hadn't really noticed anything, that the doctor picked up on right away," said Duckworth, a high tech mergers and acquisitions professional. Stanford dermatologist Justin Ko, MD, had spotted what he was pretty certain was basal cell carcinoma, just below Duckworth's left collarbone.
The encounter with this most common kind of skin cancer was Duckworth's wake-up call, one that dermatologists wish all of us might hear before any evidence of disease is found. The reality is that the longer a skin cancer goes without detection, the more likely it is to become invasive and aggressive—and that the earlier it's treated, the more likely it is to be completely curable.
Screening Makes Sense
On Saturday, June 1, Stanford will host its annual free skin cancer screening at the Stanford Medicine Outpatient Center in Redwood City. Since that facility opened in 2009, the event has become an annual tradition there, enlisting dozens of dermatology specialists to do full body exams of those who arrive between 8 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. In particular, people with a family history of skin cancer; many or atypical moles; or fair skin and excessive exposure to the sun are recommended to be screened.
Duckworth, whose complexion might be called fair to medium, grew up near a beach. "When you're a kid, you don't pay as much attention to sunblock as you probably should," he said. As an adult, on many treasured trips to Maui, "I probably didn't reapply sunblock as often as I could have. I know I've had some sun burns I probably could have avoided."
The driving force behind cancer in the skin is the sun's ultraviolet light, in two of its three forms, UVA and UVB. Even on darker days or while in a car or house, UVA penetrates through clouds and glass to damage the skin's DNA and allow cancer to take hold, Ko said. The other cautionary note he shares is that developing skin cancer once means a 44 percent risk for developing it again. What he values about dermatology, however, is that screening is so easy. "Medical professionals—or patients themselves—can see things growing and changing. There's nothing standing between us and the skin." For high risk patients especially he recommends that spouses or another friend or family member check those areas that aren't easily seen without such help.
A Sensible Change in Behavior
Since Ko removed Duckworth's basal cell cancer, that laid back attitude has evolved into proactive prevention. He had long taken other precautions to protect his health. "I don't smoke cigarettes, I eat fruits and vegetables and I do other things for my lifestyle to avoid diseases, but I never really thought about taking care of my skin as a healthy choice. I want to live a long time and see my kids grow up and have kids of their own. Taking care of my skin is one of those things that I've added to my list of healthy choices I need to do every day, like brushing my teeth and taking my vitamins. I put on sunblock and wear a hat if I'm going out for a day in the sun to a ballgame or to the pool. And if I go to the beach, instead of spending all day out in the blazing sun, I might find a nice little palm tree to chill out under."
He's also begun to nudge others, too. "Skin protection is something I'm starting to talk about to my friends and family, especially for men, as they get older," Duckworth said. "You need to take precautions and you need to see a dermatologist on some type of regular basis. By doing that, you'll be able to rest easier—that is one less thing you need to worry about."
The Stanford Outpatient Center is located at 450 Broadway, Redwood City. The screening runs from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., in Pavilion B, 4th floor.