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Skin cancer survivor offers a warning

By Rich Davis - Evansville Courier & Press Staff Writer
Health & Medicine Magazine, Fall 2007
Beth Polin, left, helps Robin Lawrence demonstrate to the Northside Kiwanis the effects of UV rays on unprotected skin or the effect of UV protection on your skin.

When Robin Lawrence, 46, looks "at who I used to be," she's not surprised she got skin cancer.

"I was a farmer's daughter, raising tobacco from the time I was 9. When I wasn't doing our tobacco, I was out in the fields helping other farms... to pay for college, a car, clothes. In college, I started competing in body building. I laid out in the sun a lot, used tanning beds."

Ironically, it was the same week she landed a marketing job in 2002 with the Evansville Cancer Center that her dermatologist delivered some shocking news. A suspicious facial mole was just an age spot, but a mole on her buttocks wasn't. She had melanoma.

"It scared me to death," she says. "I still go through fear."

Over the past five years, she's had 26 biopsies and surgical procedures to remove five melanomas and 13 precursors. "Through sun exposure, tanning and genetics I'm now a very moley person."

Her job and personal battle make her a passionate advocate for skin cancer awareness: "It's my duty. For me to have all this information and not do something would be a crime. It is not safe to tan. If you really want (a tan look) there are sprays and self-tanners. All a tan is, is damaged skin.

Our skin is our largest organ and the one we probably pay the least attention to," adds the former sun worshipper, noting incidence of skin cancer has soared 690 percent (the death rate 195 percent) since 1950 "because of our lifestyle and because the ozone layer has been depleted." Experts agree sunlight, particularly ultraviolet wavelengths, damages the skin.

There are three main types of skin cancer. Melanoma is least common but most serious, responsible for three-quarters of the more than 10,000 skin cancer deaths per year. Another, basal cell, is the most common, followed by squamous cell carcinoma. The latter two have a 95 percent cure rate if detected early.

Skin cancer is striking the young, too; a fourth of the roughly 50,000 people expected to develop melanoma this year will be 39 or younger.

Lawrence is working to introduce a sunscreen protection program in Evansville schools, naming it after former University of Southern Indiana basketball player Wes Atterbury who died recently of melanoma. "Wes touched my heart. I understand why I got skin cancer, but he was just a redheaded boy (more prone to skin cancer). He didn't lay in the sun or go to tanning beds."

Fast facts: More than 1 million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed this year, and 1 in 5 Americans will develop some form of skin cancer during their lives.

Melanoma: Melanoma (cancerous and malignant lesions) are typically irregular in shape with ragged borders or notched edges, while benign and nonmalignant moles typically are round and have smooth borders. Melanoma contains many shades of brown or black while benign moles usually are a single shade of brown.

Sunscreen: Sunscreen should be applied all over (not just exposed areas) 20 minutes before going outside and reapplied every two hours.

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