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"I'm a Dermatologist -- and I Still Got Skin Cancer"

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Ellen Marmur, MD, chief of the division of dermatologic and cosmetic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, is living proof that no one is immune to sun damage. Here is her story -- and her advice for how to better protect yourself and lower your skin cancer risk.
How I Found It

Three years ago, I noticed a pink bump on the right side of my nose -- like a pimple that never came to a head. I asked my friend Dr. Leonard Bernstein to do a biopsy. On May 5, 2006, after doing a live interview about skin cancer on Fox News, ironically, I got a call with the diagnosis: basal cell carcinoma. I was shocked and thought, I'm only in my 30s; how can this be happening?

Choice of Treatment

Because it was on my face, I opted for Mohs surgery. In this procedure, a specially trained surgeon removes thin layers of skin and tissue, which are examined under a microscope, until only healthy cells remain. It's time-consuming, but it has a low recurrence rate and limits scarring.

My Why-It-Happened Theory

Like many women, I loved to tan as a teen. (At a recent high school reunion, a friend said, "Remember when we sunbathed with petroleum jelly on our faces?") In addition, I was very active outdoors. I was a swimmer throughout my childhood and in college. And in my 20, I cycled and canoed for hours at a time, often without sunscreen. To me, it's no coincidence that active women -- especially those who play tennis and golf -- have more suspicious spots and skin cancers on their legs.

How Skin Cancer Changed Me

Wearing sunscreen is nonnegotiable. I diligently apply it all over, paying special attention to my face, neck, and chest. If I'm going to be outside for long periods, I reapply every hour and wear sun-protective clothing such as surf shirts.

Best Stay-Healthy Advice

Apply SPF every day of the year. Practice skin self-exams on the day of your birthday every month (for instance, if your birthday is May 13, do it on the 13th of each month). Check your significant other's skin for suspicious spots, and have him eyeball yours. And finally, be a healthy-skin advocate for your friends: If you're working out together and you see an odd-looking mole, be sure to mention it.

 

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, June 2009.

 

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