Skin cancer survivors speak out
It's Skin Cancer Awareness Week on OnMilwaukee.com, dedicated to the memory of our colleague, Tim Cuprisin, who died of melanoma last fall. Melanoma kills 9,100 Americans each year, but together, we can beat it. All week long, we're bringing you survivor stories, prevention plans and breakthroughs to make skin cancer a disease of the past. We've also set up a fund in memory of Tim and urge you to donate here. Skin Cancer Awareness Week is sponsored by the Dermatology Associates of Wisconsin. Enjoy the Milwaukee summer, but be safe and smart in the sun!
Although skin cancer often claims lives, for some, it is a treatable illness. Two local men were diagnosed with skin cancer, but went on to live happy, fulfilling lives. In both cases, the cancer was caught early, which – as we have all heard – seems to be a key factor in surviving the disease.
Milwaukee's Randy Schmidt, 68, beat skin cancer twice, once in 2002 and again in 2004. He has been cancer-free since the second surgery.
The first time, the cancer was diagnosed on his nose, and two years later, it was found on the left side of his abdomen.
"They took quite a slice off my nose, but luckily, I have a big nose," he says. "So it wasn't too noticeable."
Schmidt did not have reconstructive surgery following his nose surgery, although some patients do.
Because Schmidt was fair skinned, has eczema and suffered from a serious skin infection that landed him in the hospital for two weeks as a teenager, going to the dermatologist was already a routine part of his life. Over the years, he has had a few other precancerous skin conditions removed, as well.
"I make it a religious journey to visit the dermatologist to get a complete screening. I always make a six-month or yearly visit," says Schmidt.
As an avid golfer, he has to be extra careful not to overexpose his skin to the sun.
"Basically, I have to take a bath in sunscreen when I'm golfing," he says. "Without fail, I use sunscreen."
The biggest piece of advice Schmidt offers is for people to go to a dermatologist, regardless of their age.
"Don't wait until you're older. No matter how old you are, go to the dermatologist and have everything checked out. Especially if you, like so many people 20 years ago, wanted that super golden tan," he says. "The best prevention is to be proactive."
Schmidt, who grew up in Milwaukee, has a family history of skin cancer. His mother passed away from the illness and his brother recently had first stage melanoma which resulted in the removal of part of his ear lobe. He says his family grew up spending a lot of time outdoors, and "back then," nobody used sunscreen.
"I spent a lot of time outdoors and probably paid the price for all those years getting sunburns. In those days sunscreen wasn't even a sparkle in someone's eye and it was kind of cool if you got sunburned," he says.
Today, Schmidt says he is not worried about his cancer returning, but he does harbor a "healthy concern." He is diligent about self-examinations in between his regular dermatologist appointments and does not hesitate to make an additional visit to the doctor if he finds anything even remotely suspicious looking.
As a husband, father and grandfather who recently retired from the insurance business and plans to stick around for a long time to enjoy this stage of his life, he's not taking any chances.
"My cancer story is not a dramatic one that has changed my life drastically. Luckily, I still do all of my life activities," says Schmidt. "I just have to be sure I use sunscreen while doing them."
Andy Berg, who lives in Waukesha, will turn 67 next month. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with skin cancer on his left arm. Last year, it returned, this time on his forehead. Both cancerous growths were burned off with liquid nitrogen.
The first one, on his arm, he describes as a "little dark spot" that he thought was simply a sore that wouldn't heal. He talked to his dermatologist three times about it before she decided a biopsy was in order.
"When she was burning it off, I said, 'it smells like wood' and she said, 'that ain't wood,'" he says, chuckling.
Berg, who grew up in Duluth, Minn., says he believes his skin cancer was caused by cold weather more than exposure to the sun.
"The extreme cold can do as much damage to the skin as the sun. I got a lot of wind and ice burns in my life," he says. "The freezing and thawing of the skin is not good."
Today, Berg, who is retired after a 30-year career as a vocational educator for Allen-Bradley, says he's not worrying about his condition, just being assertive.
"I accept that I have a lifelong sentence to the dermatologist," he says.
Berg works as a volunteer for the American Cancer Society's "Road To Recovery" program and provides rides to cancer patients living in Waukesha who need to get to and from chemo or radiation appointments in Milwaukee. Many of the shuttle systems don't extend into the Waukesha area, so Berg is happy to provide the service. He says he gets a lot from the experience on a personal level, but it's also a matter of providing safety for other drivers on the road.
"I don't want a person driving next to me or behind me who is as weak as a kitten from a radiation appointment," he says. "That's one of the reasons why I volunteer to do this."
Like Schmidt, Berg insists that visiting the dermatologist regularly is very important, but also, self-examinations and immediate appointments if need be are crucial as well.
"If you even suspect a problem get it checked out. I've been very fortunate because I have been on top of it," he says. "It's always better to catch early than let it become a major issue. I've seen a few cases of what happens if skin cancer isn't caught quickly enough, and it isn't pretty."
I had melanoma at the age of 28. I had a freckle that went to the dark side and my doctor actually told me it was nothing and didn't want to remove it. I felt something was wrong and told him I wanted it off right away and sure enough it came back melanoma. Be sure to be proactive and I recommend starting yearly checks at 25 with a dermatologist who will be able to establish a cancer free baseline to compare your skin to over the years. It is that much easier to detect a mole/skin area that's changed if you knew what it looked like to begin with.
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