In a recent article, I wrote about the increased risk people with autoimmune diseases face for also developing cancer and the importance of monitoring the skin for melanoma. Taking biologics can also raise the risk of this cancer, however, it is highly treatable when caught early.
I have been visiting my dermatologist at least twice a year to check my moles and monitor my skin for melanoma.
Periodically, I have had suspicious moles removed and tested for melanoma. Moles that should be checked may be uneven, growing or changing shape, or varying in color. (My previous article outlines what to look for when checking moles.)
In most cases, the mole was removed in the doctor’s office with the application of some novocaine and a small cut. The majority of the tests came back negative. However, I did have one case where more follow-up was needed.
The cells were not normal, but they also were not yet fully-developed cancer.
Several years ago I had a dermatologist remove a mole from my left shin that looked suspicious. The test came back as slightly abnormal, meaning pre-melanoma. The cells were not normal, but they also were not yet fully-developed cancer. Because of this result, the doctor had me come back in to have more of the surrounding skin area removed as an extra precaution.
When the additional skin cells also contained abnormal results, we consulted with a plastic surgeon for one more skin removal. She removed additional skin and was able to close the wound using some advanced skills without having to create a skin graft.
The last surgery was successful and all the abnormal cells were removed, but it was a difficult and anxious time. I appreciated the care and sending the cells to a lab with advanced skills, but the length of time for the entire process was challenging to endure.
One of the challenges of the surgery was also that the wound healed very slowly. The shin (lower leg area) doesn’t heal quickly because of the physical distance from the heart and blood flow that promotes healing. Additionally, I also do not have terrific circulation in my legs and found that my medications also slowed healing.
It took extra wound care and patience to finally heal completely from the surgery.
Although I did not have a melanoma diagnosis, my dermatologist recommended more frequent appointments to monitor my skin for a few years. Ultimately, consistent vigilance and early detection prevented a potentially serious illness.
My experience underscores the importance of prevention when dealing with melanoma. Not only do my husband and I check my moles and skin for changes, but I have regular follow ups with a dermatologist to monitor for any problems and take action for early detection.
Unfortunately, increased risk of cancer is one of the issues we have to manage as people living with rheumatoid arthritis (or other autoimmune conditions) and taking biologics (or other medications that suppress or alter immune response). Thankfully, in the case of melanoma, some easy steps can be taken for prevention, detection, and early action to stop the spread or eliminate a case.
Minimizing cancer risk involves regular check-ups with your primary care physician and other doctors as appropriate. It also means understanding your risks for cancer and taking steps to monitor for symptoms in order to take early treatment actions. But perhaps above all, we need to make as many healthy choices as possible from a balanced diet, regular exercise and applying sunscreen. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for prevention, there are many actions we can take to promote health, detect problems early, and act on early treatment options.