Monday Medical: Melanoma warriors share their stories
May 15, 2011
Our community is buzzing about melanoma.
May is Melanoma Awareness Month at Yampa Valley Medical Center. Our focus on prevention and early detection has been communicated in print, on radio and in person. Clearly, the messages are connecting.
Doctors' phones are ringing with requests for skin-check appointments. The hospital's supply of broad-spectrum sunscreen is dwindling as people stop by for free samples. And our melanoma awareness quiz at http://www.yvmc.org is getting lots of attention.
Much of this is because of the record attendance at our May 10 "Taking Care of Me" program. Dr. Maryann Wall's presentation created 162 "junior melanoma detectors," who now are better equipped to recognize this disease and protect against it.
Some of our strongest messages have been delivered by five individuals who live, work and play in Routt County. We thank them for sharing their stories in our "Got Melanoma" ad series.
Katie Lindquist always had a mole on her left ear. So she ignored two friends who told her: "Your ear looks funny." Then, one day, her husband, Kent Eriksen, said something looked wrong with her ear.
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She grabbed a mirror and saw at a glance that her mole had changed color and appearance. Now she recommends being observant, blunt and persistent with friends and family if you notice any suspicious-looking spot.
Lindquist sent several photos for the ad series and our website. Her email notes:
"The second shot is me racing the day after Dr. Wall removed the top of my ear, and before we knew it was melanoma. You can see the bandages on my ear. It was pounding in pain as I raced. Sort of profound, but not a very nice picture."
We went with a different cycling photo, which you can see at http://www.yvmc.org/melanoma.
Keith Liefer is a businessman, husband and father. He is alive today because he spoke up during a routine physical exam in 2005 with his family physician, Dr. Dan Smilkstein.
"I'd noticed a small lump in my neck and thought I might be coming down with a cold," he said. "Dan said we should get it checked. I was shocked to learn it was stage 3, metastatic melanoma, encapsulated in a lymph node."
Liefer had no outward sign of melanoma. But because of a family history of skin cancer and a lifetime of exposure to the sun, he had been getting full skin checks twice a year.
"Having to face your own mortality, you learn to reprioritize your life," Liefer said. "I focused on family, friends and faith. I recommend being aware of your body. Caught early, melanoma can be dealt with. Caught late, the odds are not good."
Laura Ansberry echoes Liefer's message with two words: "Don't procrastinate."
She ignored a spot on her right hip for almost a year.
"I was worried, but I didn't want to face it, even though it was raised, black, bleeding and nasty," she said. "Nobody should wait like I did."
Ansberry has been through a rough time — two surgeries and a year of chemotherapy. At times, she has felt very sick. But she is grateful for the support from her daughter, Asia, her "chemo angels" at Yampa Valley Medical Center and her current employer.
She is not fond of the label "cancer survivor." Instead, she calls herself a "melanoma warrior."
Traci Day never thought much about the mole on her neck, which she'd had for 10 years.
"It gradually grew and changed," she said. "It had started to itch and the texture was different. Our pediatrician, Dr. Steve Ross, suggested having it looked at."
The diagnosis of stage 2 melanoma shocked her. Although she rides horses, raises cattle, gardens and camps with her family, she doesn't think of herself as a sun lover. Besides, her neck is nearly always covered by her collar or hair.
"Listen to your body," Day recommends. "And be careful about looking on the Internet. There are good sites, but there is a lot of negative information out there, too. It's important to stay positive and have a network of supportive people around you. And your relatives need to know, because melanoma can be genetic."
Jeremiah McGuire is living proof that it is a good idea to listen to your mother. His mom had been urging him to see a doctor for two years. Finally, at age 27, he had numerous melanomas removed from his ear, chest, stomach, back and back of head.
"I have no known family history of melanoma, but I never wore sunscreen," he said. "I work outside six hours a day, and I love water skiing, dirt biking and mountain biking."
Now he regularly applies 90 SPF sunscreen on every bit of exposed skin.
"I think people are afraid of wearing sunscreen in Steamboat Springs because they think they won't tan," he said. "Well, I get a nice tan through the sunscreen — I'm not white and pasty."
He also advocates having any suspicious-looking skin checked by a doctor. "It's worth the 30 minutes that it takes," he said.
Christine McKelvie is public relations director at Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.