From Doctor to Patient

A dermatologist is diagnosed with melanoma.

By Elizabeth Tanzi, MD

One night in 2007, while pregnant with my second child, I noticed a small mole on my right leg that looked a little darker than the rest. It didn’t look particularly scary, so I figured it was nothing. I denied its existence until four months after the birth of my daughter, when I noticed it had darkened slightly. There was no denying it any longer—that mole had definitely changed.

But although it was now a little darker, the mole still did not look particularly threatening, and my first inclination was to ignore it again. In fact, I had three of my dermatology colleagues evaluate it, and all said the same thing: “Nothing to worry about.” Despite their reassurances the dermatologist in me realized that any changing mole—no matter how innocent looking—could be the first warning sign that something is wrong. Still, it never occurred to me, even as I had the mole biopsied, that less than 48 hours later I would hear devastating news.

The message was brief and to the point: “Liz, call me back tonight. I have to talk to you about your biopsy results.” It was that one sentence—still capable of evoking chills when I think about it—that convinced me immediately that the mole was in fact melanoma. There was no other reason why the pathologist, who is a colleague and a friend, would call me during the evening hours when she could simply call my office the following day.

Yes, that “innocent-looking” spot on my leg was melanoma, she told me. Thankfully, it was in the earliest stages. As a dermatologist myself, I tried to stay calm, knowing that it was caught early and that my prognosis was good. But it’s hard for anyone to remain rational in the face of a potentially life-threatening cancer diagnosis. As a 37-year-old mom of two young kids, I thought at once of the young mothers I have seen in my own practice who have lost their lives to melanoma.

As I did my best to process the information, the same question continued to run through my mind: How did this happen to me—a dermatologist?! Although I’ve practiced good sun habits over the past decade, in retrospect I made some poor choices as a young adult that no doubt increased my risk significantly, visits to the tanning salon and long days on the beach during spring break among them.

Without the option to turn back time, I knew that the best approach was to act quickly and remove the melanoma immediately. The surgery left me with a large scar on my leg, but it didn’t matter; I was just so happy to have the cancer removed. Since then I’ve had more than 20 other biopsies but, thankfully, to date I am cancer-free.

As a dermatologist, I’ve always been dedicated to the health of my patients’ skin. Now that I’m a patient and a melanoma survivor myself, however, I’m an even more passionate advocate for the prevention and the early detection of melanoma. Each of us has the power to reduce our risk of developing melanoma through sensible sun practices and to prevent life-threatening melanoma with early detection. Although one American per hour dies from melanoma, when caught in the earliest stages melanoma is almost 100 percent curable. My advice is to become familiar with the moles on your body through monthly self-exams; through this practice of routinely examining your skin, you’ll be able to recognize any spots that change over time. If you do notice a change, run—don’t walk—to a dermatologist for evaluation. Acting quickly might just save your life.

Dr. Tanzi’s Top 10 Skin Safety Tips

  1. Visit your dermatologist annually for a full-body screening.
  2. Perform a monthly self-exam; skin cancer detection is most effective when it’s a team effort between you and your dermatologist.
  3. Avoid peak hours of sun (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
  4. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays liberally every three to four hours when in direct sunlight. Choose one with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30.
  5. Absolutely avoid tanning beds.
  6. Look for SPF products that contain zinc and/or titanium; they offer good protection without irritation.
  7. Try double-duty powder sun blocks—they apply like pressed powder, so your skin looks great and is adequately protected from the sun. The built-in brush makes application easy when you’re on the go.
  8. Although you can’t reverse sun damage from past exposure, it’s never too late to begin proper sun protection practices, as the sun’s negative effects are cumulative.
  9. If a mole has been changing in size, shape, or color, it needs to be checked by a dermatologist immediately.
  10. For additional information visit the Skin Cancer Foundation website at www.skincancer.org.