When I first began dating Jason, the man who later became my husband, I noticed a small spot on his back that didn’t look right to me. It was scaly, with an irregular shape. He admitted sometimes it was itchy and bled a little. I immediately recognized the warning signs of skin cancer.
I had grown up with an awareness of skin cancer because an astute physician many years earlier had noticed and treated a developing melanoma on my father’s leg when he was still in his late 20s. Early detection is essential with melanoma because it’s very treatable when it’s caught early, but quite deadly when it isn’t. My father simply had the offending spot removed from his leg, and he was able to go on with his life. He’s 78 now, and he still goes to the dermatologist every few months for regular body scans to identify and remove any early signs of skin cancer.
As for Jason, he was young, healthy and not terribly concerned about the spot on his back. So, in the spring of 1996, I accompanied him to meet his family for the first time for the Passover holiday. It was on that first meeting with his mother that I ended up expressing my concern about his back. She made an appointment for him with her dermatologist, who agreed the spot needed to be removed immediately.
A day after the procedure, the dermatologist called Jason to confirm the melanoma diagnosis and to instruct him to call a melanoma surgeon who was waiting to schedule further surgery right away. In the end, Jason had a large section of skin removed from his back in the size and shape of a football, as well as a few lymph nodes under each armpit. Although the surgery and recovery were quite painful and Jason bears some enormous scars on his midsection, he survived and thankfully has been cancer-free ever since.
Jason was lucky. One American dies every hour from melanoma, and Miami attorney Stewart Greenberg feared he was going to be included in that statistic in 2012 when his doctors diagnosed him with stage four metastatic melanoma. His cancer, like Jason’s, had started out as a small spot on his back but unfortunately it had already spread into his stomach by the time he was diagnosed.
Stewart’s doctors in Florida gave him little hope of long-term survival. As a final adventure with his wife Maggie, Stewart decided to take a trip to Israel. While there, Stewart met with trailblazing melanoma researcher Dr. Michal Lotem at the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem at the urging of a family friend in Florida.
In Israel, Dr. Lotem gave him the good news that an active vaccination treatment program done only at Hadassah might help him. The procedure extracts the patient’s own cancer-fighting cells, expands them, and then inserts them back into the patient in greater quantity and in a stronger state. For Stewart, the treatment was a success, and he was fortunate to be able to access it. Nearly 10 years later, he is still cancer-free.
The Hadassah Melanoma and Cancer Immunotherapy Center (HMCIC), headed by Dr. Lotem, offers several treatments unique in the world that are aimed at strengthening the patient’s immune response to a tumor. Treatments are designed for stage III and stage IV patients who have undergone surgery for metastases.
Although melanoma treatments like the one Stewart received in Israel show promise, melanoma remains by far the deadliest form of skin cancer. It is the leading cause of death due to cancer in women aged 25 to 30, and the second leading cause of cancer death in women aged 30 to 35. Melanoma rates continue to rise in the United States, but prevention can play a significant role in stamping out skin cancer. The overwhelming majority of skin cancers are caused by over-exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun, tanning beds or sunlamps. Protecting your skin from UV rays with sunscreen, shade or clothing goes a very long way toward preventing skin cancer before it has a chance to take root.
The month of May is Melanoma Awareness Month, and The National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention has proclaimed the Friday before Memorial Day weekend as Don’t FryDay (May 27th, 2022) to serve as an annual reminder to all of us to enjoy the sun safely as the summer season gets underway. In honor of Don’t FryDay, let’s amplify the Don’t FryDay message:
- Early detection saves lives. That is why raising awareness with events such as Don’t FryDay are so important.
- Friends can encourage and remind each other to stay safe in the sun. We can share tips about products or sun-safe clothing. My two favorite sunscreen brands are Beautycounter and Elta. What are yours?
- Skin cancer often occurs on the back, and your friends can see your back easier than you can. If you notice something unusual on someone’s back, tell them!
A video of Stewart Greenberg’s amazing journey can be viewed here.
A video with more information on skin cancer awareness can be viewed here.
A video with more information on Hadassah Medical Organization’s life-saving medical research can be viewed here.