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It's Only Skin Deep . . . Or Is It?

Ahhh . . . summer fun in the sun! Who doesn’t love it? Floating around in your pool or on the lake. Frolicking at the beach. Your skin, a golden tan. The warm glow of tanned skin makes everyone feel better. And let's admit it, we look better and healthier with a little tan. Or do we?

Growing up, my family spent summers on Norris Lake. Swimming, skiing, fishing, playing. We’ve always been water babies and love the lake, the ocean, the beach. We never met a tropical island we didn’t like. Almost everyone in my family has their scuba certification, so our vacations moved from the lake to the ocean as we became adults.

During those early days when we weren’t on the lake, you could find all the girls in our neighborhood at our house slicked up with baby oil or some other tanning product, basking in the summer sun. Tanning was our job and we were in hot pursuit of the perfect brown-as-a-biscuit tan.

Me with my beautiful mama.

My mother has beautiful olive skin and can tan simply walking to the car. Me? Well, I have my father’s Irish complexion—dark hair, green eyes, and freckles. I have enough of my mother’s melanin genes to get a darned good tan for an Irish lass, but those freckles will just keep multiplying. My fighting Irish blood is determined to dominate.

Sunscreen? Never heard of it until I was in my early 20s. Even then, I didn’t take it too seriously. It was something used to keep little kids from getting burned and blistered.

Somewhere close to 30, I wasn’t such a fan of the freckles on my face anymore. So, I started slathering sunscreen on my face, neck, and décolletage. My baseball cap became my summer go-to accessory. Even though I avoided the sun on my face as often as possible, for some reason, I thought the rest of my body would be just fine without it.

Don't forget your hat and sunscreen!

As the years wore on, I became more protective of my skin and started using a higher sunblock and didn’t “work” on a tan any longer. If I happened to get some drive-by sun while running or on the lake, fine. If not, so be it.

Then, I was attacked by an autoimmune malfunction, that I have fondly named Petey (see my previous blog post, “The Dragon: My Autoimmune Malfunction”). Petey caused my skin to sizzle in the sun. I felt like a vampire exposed to the sun for the first time in 100 years and my skin was melting. The medicine I took also made me very susceptible to burning. With Petey in full force, I stayed out of the sun completely for about three years. Honestly, my skin never looked or felt better.

I gave up tanning years ago. I use sunscreen every day. But it doesn't matter how much sun I get today—the damage from years ago is where most of the danger lies.

Last year, I went for a haircut and my stylist noticed a mole that bad been on the back of neck for a while. He said it looked abnormal (thank you, Randy). I thought it would turn out to be nothing. I hadn’t really been in the sun in years. Besides, who gets skin cancer on the back of their neck?

The biopsy.

I had my appointment with Lindsay at The Skin Wellness Center in Knoxville. She took one look at that guy and decided he was not someone I should be hanging out with and recommended a biopsy. That day, she also found and froze off 8 pre-cancerous places on my face and arms.

The biopsy came back as a basal cell carcinoma. Basal cell is kinda the skin cancer starter pack. If you're going to have one, this is the one you want. Dr. Meredith Overholt removed the offending cells and placed 17 beautifully crafted stitches (a few inside, a few outside) in the back of my neck.

When I returned to have my stitches removed, Lindsay did a full-body scan and zapped 14 more pre-cancerous thugs into oblivion. One had been on my cheek for a very, very long time. I thought it was just a freckly kinda thing and covered it with concealer. We opted to use fluorouracil cream on this one to avoid scarring. Lindsay warned me that it would get angry. And did it ever. It was angry and ugly. It looked like I had stuck a curling iron to my face. After about two weeks it went away. No scar, no nothing. Just beautiful, clear skin.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Even if you have dark skin and tan easily—you can still get skin cancer. My friend Vic is Sicilian with beautiful olive skin and he’s battling stage 4 melanoma. Preventative measures include sunscreen and limiting your exposure to the sun, especially during mid-day. And for the love of all that’s holy—stay out of tanning beds, people! Get a spray tan. Or just enjoy your beautiful skin as it is.

According to the American Cancer Society, “Basal cell carcinoma usually develops on sun-exposed areas, especially the head and neck. It’s very rare for a basal cell cancer to spread to other parts of the body. But if a basal cell cancer is left untreated, it can grow into nearby areas and invade the bone or other tissues beneath the skin.

“Squamous cell carcinoma commonly appears on sun-exposed areas of the body such as the face, ears, neck, lips, and backs of the hands. They can also develop in scars or chronic skin sores elsewhere.

“Actinic keratosis (AK), is a pre-cancerous skin condition caused by too much exposure to the sun. AKs are usually small (less than 1/4 inch across), rough or scaly spots that may be pink-red or flesh-colored. Usually they start on the face, ears, backs of the hands, and arms of middle-aged or older people with fair skin, although they can occur on other sun-exposed areas.”

Preventative measures include sunscreen and limiting your exposure to the sun, especially during mid-day.

The trick with any skin cancer is to catch it early. If you see anything that looks unusual—moles, pigmented areas that are suddenly abnormal in color, size, shape, or texture—have it checked by a dermatologist.

The Skin Cancer Foundation says, “Basal cell carcinomas often look like open sores, red patches, pink growths, shiny bumps, or scars. While basal cell carcinomas seldom spread to vital organs, they can cause major disfigurement and occasionally result in nerve or muscle injury. Squamous cell carcinomas typically appear as persistent, thick, rough, scaly patches that may bleed. They often look like warts and sometimes have open sores with a raised border and crusted surface over an elevated pebbly base. The skin around them typically shows signs of sun damage such as wrinkling, pigment changes and loss of elasticity. They can become disfiguring and sometimes deadly if allowed to grow.”

I can’t thank The Skin Wellness Center enough for being so danged good at what they do. For making the entire process as painless and scarless as possible. They will always be my go-to peeps for any skin issue—whether it’s dermatology-related or cosmetic. I love those ladies!

Find yourself a good dermatologist and get a skin cancer screening. Today!

As the wise sage Jennifer Garner said, “Nothing looks better in your 50s than sunscreen in your 20s.”

Love the skin you’re in,


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