Hispanics & Melanoma: My Husband's Story

Posted: Apr 22 2014

My husband was diagnosed with malignant melanoma June 2012. He just had his 32nd birthday.   When we received the diagnosis and staging (IIIc), we began research on melanoma and melanoma support groups in San Antonio. We were unsuccessful on finding local support groups (aside from our doctors of course). However, the Internet has a lot of information regarding who it affects and what it REALLY means to have melanoma. It’s not as easy to treat as one would think.

What do you really know about melanoma? 
Here’s what I knew – it’s skin cancer, and not very common. If you have a mole that changes over the years, you should have a dermatologist check it out. Chances are, they will cut it out and you go on with your life.


I was wrong about what I knew. Now, after my husband’s health scare here’s what I know:

Melanoma is a rare skin cancer. In comparison to other skin cancers (squamous and basil cell carcinoma), it only accounts for approximately 5% of skin cancers. However, melanoma accounts for 75% of deaths due to skin cancer.   So yes, it’s rare – and deadly.


Melanoma is caused by cell damage due to UV rays. Basically speaking, anytime your skin changes color (like a darker tan than your normal skin color), it has been damaged by UV rays. Melanoma is the reaction of the damaged cells.   Does it mean you will absolutely get skin cancer if your skin has tanned? No. But if you are someone who is out in the sun a lot and/or have a lot of moles on your body, you may be at a higher risk. But don’t think that it won’t happen to you. That’s what my husband did.


UV Rays and You
UV Rays are defined as damage from the sun and tanning beds. While there is a lot of controversy regarding tanning beds, I will say this: melanoma has increased 400% among women between the ages of 25 and 39. If you have used a tanning bed at least once before the age of 35, you are at a 75% chance higher risk of getting melanoma.   Regardless of the tanning bed argument, the sun is the main cause of melanoma. We are all in the sun daily. Sun rays account for 80% of all melanoma.


Caucasian Disease? Nope...
It's a common myth that this is a Caucasian disease. Did you know Bob Marley, the reggae singer, died from melanoma? Did you also know that in the past five years, a lion in Africa had melanoma on his nose, and fish in Austrailia had tumors on their skin? Did you know that Sphinx cats (those ugly hairless cats) need sun protection with clothing prior to going outside? How can it be a Caucasian cancer with all of these unusual cases? It is more common amoung Caucasians, yes. But everyone is susceptible.


When one is diagnosed with melanoma, there are tons of tests that have to be conducted to determine how advanced the cancer is. If caught early, it is nearly 100% curable. However, it can spread into the lymph nodes. Once it is in the lymph nodes, your 10 year survival rate is significantly lower. Surgery isn’t just cutting out the mole either. They will remove the mole and “margins” – skin around the mole. My husband has a 10” scar on his back because of it. They also had to remove lymph nodes since it has spread to his armpit. As such, he now is on an immunotherapy threatment that is similar to chemotherapy. The side effects are similar as well.


Prevention and You
So what can you do to prevent this from happening to you?


First and foremost, early detection is paramount. Everyone, regardless of race, should check their skin monthly. There are tools available at aad.org that can assist you with tracking moles (body mole map). You have to check everywhere, such as bottom of feet, scalp and genital areas as well. Melanoma likes pigment. It can attach to any part of the body, including the rectum and intestines (rare cases, but they do happen).


See a dermatologist yearly. Many insurance plans have coverage for dermatologists. Usually, UT Health Science Center and local cancer centers will have free skin examinations several times a year as well.

Wear sunscreen daily. The sunscreen should be at least 30 SPF. You will have to apply several times a day. If you purchase a sunscreen higher than 30 SPF, you aren’t getting longer protection, so you will need to reapply according to the instructions. However, 30 SPF is proven to be adequate to protect against UV Rays.


Wear brimmed hats and sunglasses. Wear long sleeves and pants. With the Texas heat that is tough. If you can help it, avoid being out in the sun between 10-2.


You're Diagnosed, Now What
What should you do if you are diagnosed with melanoma?


Breathe. Please breathe. Then come look for us – Miles Against Melanoma South Texas. You are NOT alone, but you will feel that way. Because of my husband’s diagnosis, I started a non-profit for South Texas communities for support in research and diagnosis. My husband is still undergoing treament, and we try to stay positive.  But it would have saved us alot of grief if we had known what to look for in the first place, and protected ourselves.

You can find us at www.milesagainstmelanomasouthtexas.webs.com.

-Jaime Leeper
Founder, Miles Against Melanoma South Texas

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