Skin cancer survivor: Don’t wait to get screened

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A skin cancer screening only takes a few minutes and doctors say it could save your life.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer, according to Dr. Paul Wright, chief of cutaneous oncology at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.

“The odds are that someone you know has been affected,” Wright told 24 Hour News 8 Tuesday.

He said about one in five people are diagnosed with some form of skin cancer.

Hope Looyenga, who lives in Jenison, was the one in five.

In 2016, she told her doctor about a mole on her back during an annual physical. She’d had the mole since she was a kid but it had changed in color, shape and size. A Grand Valley State University nursing school student, she explained that she knew something was changing but hesitated to mention anything to her doctor earlier.

“It was a raised mole and it was kind of dark brown,” Looyenga said. “Then it got another spot that sort of grew off of it and then it was kind of a darker color.”

Her doctor removed it but more tests revealed she had melanoma. Even worse, it had spread to lymph nodes in both sides of her armpits.

“It was advanced at that point so I ended up having to go through quite a bit of treatment, where if I had had that mole taken off earlier or had a skin check done earlier, (it) could’ve saved me a whole lot of time and heartache,” she told 24 Hour News 8.

Wright said melanoma is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer. It can be deadly. He explained that melanoma usually appears as a painless, raised mole. Catching it early yields the best results.

“It just doesn’t bother people and we’re all busy and life kind of gets away from you,” Wright stated. “And when it’s not something big and it’s just a relatively small spot and it’s not causing any symptoms, people will let those things go for a while before they talk to their doctor about it.”

Looyegna’s treatment at Spectrum’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion helped, but right before one of the last appointments, problems returned on her left side. That extended her treatment for a 2016 problem to last month. That’s when she had her last treatment.

She never had to go through chemotherapy. Wright said most skin cancer patients use immunotherapy or target therapy (oral medicine).

Looyenga’s message this Skin Cancer Awareness Month: don’t hesitate and get checked.

“It was emotional to be done (with treatment),” she said. “It’s definitely not over, it’s still something I have to be conscious of and watch out for pretty much for the rest of my life.”

She has to have biannual scans as well as skin screenings three times per year.

Spectrum Health held free skin screenings at six of its locations exactly one week ago. Newly-released results show that in 90 minutes, local dermatologists screened 524 people, a record number for the annual event. Nine cases of melanoma and 74 cases of less aggressive skin cancers were caught and referred for treatment.

“That could be life changing for those people,” Wright said.

Wright said everyone should get a skin screening by their doctor each year.

He explained that people with a family history of skin cancer, past incidents of skin burn or fair skin are more likely to see a skin cancer diagnosis. Those people should have a dermatologist perform skin screening annually. Tanning beds can also heighten risk of cancer.

Wright said sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher is recommended any time people are outside for an extended period of time, even during the winter.

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