The third reason is that I work at MD Anderson as a medical physicist in the division of Radiation Oncology. My job is to make sure that radiation therapy is delivered appropriately to our patients. And while my efforts have shifted more toward research now, I did spend several years as a part of our radiation therapy team for breast cancer patients. So, I saw first-hand the difference that early detection can make, both in my patients and among my own family members.
Why I started getting my own skin checked annually
I began getting annual skin checks after my father was diagnosed with a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. It was on his lower lip and fairly advanced, so he had a very intense course of radiation therapy to treat it. That kept the cancer at bay for a little while. Unfortunately, it returned a few years later, and required surgery to remove several lymph nodes in his neck and chest, followed by another high-dose course of radiation therapy.
As a result, my father has experienced several treatment-related side effects, including dental cavities, loss of taste, and dry mouth. These have significantly impacted his quality of life. And while both he and my family are obviously happy and very grateful he’s still around to be with us, it’s hard not to think about how different things might be today if his cancer had been diagnosed earlier, when it would’ve required less aggressive treatment.
It’s also really difficult knowing that many of the issues he’s dealing with now — including difficulty chewing, swallowing, eating, and generating saliva — are related not to treatment for an oral cancer or even a throat cancer, but to a skin cancer that has its own prevention protocol.
Why I’ll keep getting my cancer screenings at MD Anderson
I plan to continue getting my screenings at MD Anderson — primarily because it’s the only place I would even consider being treated.
I had genetic testing done more than a decade ago to look for the BRCA mutation, after several relatives were diagnosed with breast cancer. Those results came back negative. But many other markers have since been identified, so I plan to talk with my primary care physician at my next checkup to see if it makes sense to run a new test panel.
With skin checks, I haven’t been as lucky. This year, I had to have a precancerous lesion frozen off of my forehead. And last year, I had a larger lesion on my neck that went deep enough to require a minor in-office surgery to remove it completely. Fortunately, the biopsy from that procedure was negative.
Still, I’m very aware that both of these procedures are inconsequential compared to what my dad went through. That’s why genetic marker or no genetic marker, I’m never skipping a cancer screening. Because I know that any cancer detected early is by definition easier to treat. And if you detect skin cancer early enough, its removal is just an office procedure.