Jessica DeJongh didn’t think much of the mole on her left shin. She had been sitting next to a campfire when she noticed the small, oddly shaped mark, and wrote it off as a piece of ash that had escaped from the flames and landed on her leg.
But at a routine checkup in 2003, DeJongh’s nurse practitioner spotted the mole and made DeJongh an appointment to have it removed. Two weeks after the appointment, the call came with the results: stage two melanoma.
“I was not prepared at all,” said DeJongh, a first-grade teacher from Manchester. “It was scary.”
Next came surgery to remove a baseball-sized chunk of her shin around the mole and a year of shots that made DeJongh sick and caused her hair to fall out.
Luckily, her skin cancer was caught early and hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes or internal organs. DeJongh has now been cancer-free for eight years. She thanks that nurse practitioner for her life.
DeJongh looks back differently now at summers spent in the sun at a pond behind her parents’ house, and childhood photos depicting her young, sunburned face.
“We’d put sunscreen on in the morning, but we’d never reapply,” she said.
Skin cancer, the most commonly diagnosed of all cancers in the United States, affects more people than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined.
In Maine, the rate of new cases of melanoma, which causes most skin cancer deaths, was 13th highest in the country in 2009, according to the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Melanoma kills an average of 47 people in Maine every year, a rising number that ranks the state 12th in the nation for deaths from melanoma per 100,000 residents. Death rates are highest in Cumberland, Androscoggin and Kennebec counties.
According to the Melanoma Foundation of New England, where DeJongh volunteers, melanoma rates are increasing faster than nearly all other cancers. For those who visit tanning beds to bake in a summer glow, rates are even higher.
“It is not safe to tan period, however people who use a tanning bed once a month before the age of 35 increase their melanoma risk by 75 percent,” said Deb Girard, the foundation’s executive director. “Giving off three to six times the amount of radiation than the sun, tanning beds are incredibly dangerous and it is vital we protect the skin of our children and ourselves by not using them.”
In addition to skipping the tanning bed, to protect yourself from skin cancer:
• Avoid sun tanning and especially don’t burn.
• Apply a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, and reapply every two hours and after swimming or sweating.
• Wear protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with 99-100 percent UVA/UVB protection.
• Seek shade when the sun’s UV rays are most intense, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
• Pay attention to the UV Index when planning outdoor activities