Last spring, I noticed an unusual mark on my torso that hadn’t been there before. It had a circular shape to it and was a bit darker than the rest of my skin. I showed it to my primary care physician during my annual physical, hoping for some reassurance, but that’s not what I got at all.
“Have a dermatologist look at it,” she told me, quickly dismissing it.
I mean, I knew that she didn’t specialize in dermatology or anything, but at the very least, I was hoping that she would tell me that it didn’t look like anything that I should be seriously concerned about. The entire ride home, I tortured myself by looking at countless images of abnormal moles, marks, and blotches that were the result of skin cancer. Part of me felt that this newfound blotch was nothing. However, I couldn’t ignore the fact that it had suddenly appeared. I immediately scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist to have it checked out, but I later had to cancel that appointment due to work obligations. I scheduled about three more appointments after that, but they all had to be rescheduled or canceled for one reason or another, until eventually, it became less of a priority for me.
“It’s probably nothing. It will go away on its own,” I told myself anytime I found myself gawking at in the mirror.
“I mean, Black people don’t get skin cancer, right?” which was stupid, considering that my fiancé’s very Black grandmother died of the disease.
For whatever reason, for the most part, telling myself these things eased my anxiety—except for anytime I heard anything about skin cancer. Be it a television ad, a plot in a film, learning that a former colleague’s sister had just been diagnosed with the disease or ZocDoc reminding me that I’m up to date on all of the recommended annual appointments except for an annual skin exam—any mention of skin cancer would result in a huge knot in my stomach. Unfortunately, I allowed this to go on for far too long.
A couple of weeks ago when scheduling appointments for my annual checkups, it dawned on me that I had foolishly been living in fear for an entire year instead of simply making the time to see a dermatologist—even if it meant allowing something on my never-ending to-do list to temporarily go undone.
I found myself in the mirror, staring at the blotch again. To my astonishment, I noticed that three more tiny blotches had appeared beneath it. I booked three more appointments with a dermatologist. Two I wound up having to cancel because of my ridiculous to-do list. But I made up my mind that come hell or high water, I would not be canceling the third. Until the day of the appointment came, of course.
Dread greeted me at my bedside that morning. I’m not sure which I was more afraid of: getting bad news from the doctor or the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I should expect from an annual skin exam. I read multiple articles that detailed how these exams usually go down, but nothing really seemed to help.
“Have you ever had an annual skin screening exam?” I asked some colleagues and friends that day.
I was hoping to get a firsthand account from someone who looks like me. Unfortunately, most of them told me that they had never even heard of annual skin screenings before I mentioned them. I was so tempted to back out of the appointment, but thankfully, I followed through.
I arrived at the doctor’s office a few minutes early, and after filling out some paperwork, I was led into the exam room. I was asked to change into a hospital gown, removing all of my clothing except for my bra and panties. Luckily for me, the physician was really sweet and energetic, which eased my anxiety.
She started by reclining the exam chair that I was seated in and closely examining my arms, neck, and torso—most of the time with her naked eye, other times with a tool that reminded me of a magnifying glass. She pulled my bra cups and bra straps back one by one in order to check those areas as well. She did the same for the fronts of my legs as well as my feet and toes. I was then asked to stand and she examined my back. She pulled back the waistband of my boyshorts and examined my buttocks before examining the back of my legs. Finally, I was asked to sit back in the exam chair and, she surveyed my head, face, hairline, scalp, and the back of my neck. I had extensions installed at the time, and my tracks did not appear to present a problem. It was a quick and painless process.
I walked away with an almost clean bill of health. According to my doctor, the skin spots were something simple that could be treated with an ointment that she had prescribed. I felt silly for putting the appointment off for so long—not just because my diagnosis was something simple, but because it could have been something serious and I put it off for an entire year.
If caught early, many forms of skin cancer are curable. Unfortunately, although skin cancer is less common in people of color than our White counterparts, it is often more deadly because it’s usually found during later stages when it is more difficult to treat. For example, melanoma. According to Web MD, 52 percent of African-Americans and 26 percent of Hispanics are diagnosed with this form skin cancer after the disease has already spread to different parts of the body.
Prevention measures include:
- Annual skin exams during which dermatologists check for suspicious-looking moles, tags, and growths on the skin.
- Monitoring any new tags, moles or blotches. When in doubt, refer to the ABCDEs of skin cancer, which you can read more about here.
- Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 15 or higher.
Just because we get the disease less frequently than everyone else doesn’t mean that we don’t need to protect ourselves against it.