An important message from Paul Gross on Melanoma Monday

I’ve always been thankful that I was born with my mother’s skin — she has a darker skin tone that tans, and never had skin cancer in her life.

My late father, on the other hand, had very fair skin. That, compounded with extensive sun exposure when he was stationed in San Juan, Puerto Rico during World War II, caused him all sorts of problems later in life. He had several skin cancers removed from his head, face and ears, and many, many other pre-cancerous lesions proactively removed. It seemed like every few months, he was coming home from the dermatologist with bandages all over his face and scalp.

I was thankful that I never had to go through any of this. Until I did.

This past winter, I had a scab on the side of my head that just didn’t seem to want to heal. I finally went to the dermatologist to have him take a look, and he decided to carve it out and have it biopsied. Fortunately, the biopsy was negative for cancer, but it was identified as an actinic keratosis: sun damaged skin. Left untreated, it very well could have turned into skin cancer. This stunned me, as I always wear baseball hats and golf hats when outside — but the doctor told me that the sun damage could have occurred when I was young.

This Melanoma Monday, I am writing this letter to plead with you to get anything on your skin, face or head that isn’t normal checked out. Melanoma is the worst-case skin cancer you could get, and one you should dread. If it’s caught early, the cancer is 99% curable, according to the American Cancer Society. However, should your melanoma spread regionally, that cure rate drops to 66% and, if it spreads distantly in your body, your likelihood of surviving drops to 27%.

Like most cancers, you need to catch this early.

If you don’t see a dermatologist annually for skin checkups, at least have your partner or a family member occasionally take a look at the parts of your body that you can’t easily see. Below is a chart of abnormal things to look out for. A helpful note: “greater than 6 mm” is larger than the size of a pencil eraser.