“What the hell is that on your lip?” my brother asks, while I’m visiting my dad in Connecticut. Truth is, I’d been wondering the same thing a couple of weeks earlier, when I spotted the white, pinhead-sized spot, smack in the center of my lower lip. My brother, a mouth cancer survivor, said I should get it looked at right away. I told him I had an appointment with a Connecticut dermatologist the following Monday.
The doctor said it didn’t look like anything to be too worried about but that if it doesn’t go away after a total of 30 days, I should have it biopsied. He said he could biopsy it right then and there but since it had only been two weeks, he wouldn’t. Plus, I was doing a TV interview that weekend for a big job and figured I would wait to see if the doctor thought it was ok. On top of that, the doctor only took cash as payment and I only had enough in my pocket to cover the $200 office visit, not the extra $150 to have it scraped and cover lab fees (though I’m sure he would have just billed me later.)
When my sister Carol saw the spot on my lip, she said that it looked like the same thing she’d had, and in the same spot, too. Hers turned out to be squamous cell carcinoma. I wasn’t feeling too good about the whole thing and was starting to get anxious, especially after a couple of weeks and it was still there. When I returned home to California, I called my dermatologist to make an appointment. It took a week to get in to see him and when I finally did, he said the same thing as my doctor in Connecticut. He gave me a full body check, scraped my spot to have it biopsied and said I’d have the results in a couple of weeks. I left $600 lighter with a nice open sore on my lip.
Ten days later, I got a call from the dermatologist’s office saying that the results had come back positive for squamous cell carcinoma. My stomach dropped and my wife, who was in the car with me, started to cry. The doctor’s office referred me to a local specialist.
It was Monday before Thanksgiving and the earliest appointment I could get was the following Monday. That made for a long week and I had a lot on my mind. I just prayed it didn’t spread and that they could get it all.
On Monday, I had Mohs surgery to remove the squamous cell carcinoma from my lip and my doctor was excellent. In fact, he teaches the procedure to fellows and residents at UCLA and performs over 1,200 of these procedures a year. I was obviously nervous as can be to get the results. The surgery can last between three and five hours as they go in and scrape one layer at a time and then test it to make sure they got all the cancer. The average patient gets two to three layers removed. I was hoping for one but I needed two.
The best part is the doctor said I was all clear and that there was a less than 1% chance that he didn’t get all the cancer. Those are odds I would take.
Believe me when I tell you it’s no fun to get this procedure, which brings me to the point of this article. When most people travel, they’re out in the sun, whether it be at the beach or on the ski slopes. Don’t forget that the sun doesn’t have to be shining brightly for you to need sunscreen. In fact, sunscreen application should be a part of your daily routine. I used to wear SPF 15 but my doctor said I needed to up that to SPF 50. And since prevention is better than the cure, I suggest you do, too. To help prevent others from getting this nasty and far too common disease, I’m posting a few photos so you know what to look for and what it looks like after surgery.
Thank God I caught it early but it probably could have been prevented if I’d worn a stronger SPF and a lip balm with strong SPF. You can bet I will be wearing both from now on as well as a hat, instead of a visor. My doctor said he does a lot of Mohs surgeries on scalps these days since many people wear visors. I also have to go get a full body scan by my regular dermatologist every six months.
So when you travel, remember to pack and diligently apply SPF 50 sunscreen and make sure your kids are protected from head to toe, too. When I was growing up, most of my friends wore baby oil to get a tan, which is probably part of the reason my doctor performs 100 Mohs surgeries each month. Your next vacation in the sun should be lots of fun – but safe, too.
Good To Know
-Mayo Clinic Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin
-Mayo Clinic Squamous cell carcinoma Prevention
–Travel Writer Nancy D Brown’s post on Basal cell carcinoma
Sorry you’ve had to go through this. And what a great reminder to all of us to wear sunscreen, all the time. I had a spot on my nose that the dermatologist froze off. And then it came back. It would flake off, bleed, and repeat the cycle. But I was too busy traveling to have it checked. By the time I did, the basal cancer had spread, which required removal by the MOHS surgeon. You are right, it’s a scary process. Mine took 3 scrapings before the surgeon tucked extra skin from my cheek into the hole and pulled a flap from the other side of my nose to cover it. He did a great job and you can’t even see the scar unless I point it out. But it’s my constant reminder to use sunscreen because I don’t want to go through that again. Heal quickly, Johnny, and keep applying that sunscreen. And I have a great sunscreen with tint to recommend to Natalie. Just let me know.