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July 1, 2006

Would You Bare Your Body To Fight Skin Cancer?

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woman standing in a bikini in times square

Photo Credit: Andrew Hetherington/Andrew Hetherington

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"MY FRIEND'S DEATH SAVED MY LIFE!"

Michelle, 36, dancer in the Broad way musical Chicago, New York City

TO THIS DAY, I ALWAYS TELL PEOPLE that Cathy is my angel. I really believe she is. If it weren't for her, I wouldn't be alive. We were both musical-theater performers and met when we toured Europe together doing Crazy for You. Two years after we came back, she was living in L.A. with her husband, and she got pregnant for the very first time. Cathy had a spot on her face that she'd had for as long as I'd known her, but it had started to get a little itchy, so she went to get it checked out. What started as a routine checkup went terribly awry: That day, Cathy found out she had skin cancer so advanced, her doctor recommended she begin chemo and radiation treatment immediately. But she faced a harrowing choice: Begin treatment to save her life-which would mean terminating her pregnancy- or forgo chemo long enough to give birth to her son. Cathy chose to have her child. A few months later, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. She started chemo and radiation almost immediately after, but it was too late. In December 2004, I got a call from a mutual friend: "Cathy passed away," he told me. Right there, at that moment, I thought: I know I need to get screened. My mother has told me my entire life to stay out of the sun. Of course we hear that we should all be getting checkups once a year, but I always let the year slip by without one. Then my dermatologist did a scan, and she saw two moles she didn't like- one on my ankle the size of a pencil eraser, which was two different colors. She took that off, as well as one on my thigh. "I'm going to send these out for biopsies. Don't worry," she said. I didn't. A week later, I got a message asking me to call her back. When I heard it, my heart sunk; I just knew something was wrong-so I didn't call her back. But then she called back again the next morning. That's when I found out I had melanoma. I kind of went numb. "What do I do?" I asked. "Call your family," she said kindly. My mom took it three times worse than I did. When I told my family I had to have surgery, they all wanted to get on a plane immediately. Meanwhile, I was terrified. I'd never been under anesthetic in my life! The surgery-well, I don't think I heal well. Afterward, my foot looked like Fred Flintstone's. They had to pull the skin so tightly it compromised my Achilles tendon. It took me 20 minutes to walk one city block. After that, I had to go to physical therapy for four weeks. I couldn't go up on my toes to dance for another month. And, of course, being able to dance again was my biggest concern. I was so lucky. I recovered. I returned to dancing. The biopsy on my ankle came back as stage-II melanoma, but the disease hadn't spread to my lymph nodes. Now, I am the poster child on Broadway for skin cancer screening-and I still think about Cathy every day.



A CHECKUP THAT COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you have your skin checked by a professional once a year-but what you might not know is what a regular doctor could miss! According to a recent study of graduating students at seven U.S. medical schools, 23 percent of students had never observed a skin-cancer screening, 27 percent had never been trained to do a skin check, and nearly half had never examined a patient for skin cancer. To safeguard your skin, make your appointment with a dermatologist, not your general practitioner. Need a referral? Visit the American Academy of Dermatology (aad.org) to locate a dermatologist near you- as well as free skin screenings by volunteer dermatologists in your area.


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