Adventures with Roberta

One night last week as Jon and I were changing clothes and getting ready for bed I noticed a small mole on his back that sent the arrow of my skin cancer radar so far into the red that it broke in half. My radar is perhaps more sensitive than most, and if you’re new to this website I should explain that I’ve had five suspicious moles and discolorations removed from my body in the last few years, two of which turned out to be skin cancer (you can read about my experience here, here, here, and here). So you could say I get a little jumpy when I see the tiniest skin abnormality, and for the next twenty minutes I grilled him as if he were a suspect in a gruesome homicide: how long has he known about this mole? Has it recently changed colors? Was he planning to have it checked out or was he just going to take his chances and SUDDENLY MY CHILDREN HAVE NO FATHER?

Problem is there was no one there to play good cop, so it looked less like an episode of “Law and Order” and more like a cartoon where a maniacal hen who’s been left in charge of an egg accidentally pecks it into a thousand tiny pieces.

Jon's suspicious mole

It could be absolutely nothing to worry about, but we’ve scheduled him an appointment with my dermatologist to be safe, and there’s a part of me that wants to thank Jon’s mole for reminding me that I’m due to self-treat another suspicious spot on my body, one I found on my forehead several months ago. It’s tiny, not even half the size of the fingernail on my pinky, but because of its rough texture and unwillingness to go away I brought it up with my doctor who diagnosed it as a “precancer” known as actinic keratosis:

An actinic keratosis, also known as a solar keratosis, is a scaly or crusty growth (lesion). It most often appears on the bald scalp, face, ears, lips, backs of the hands and forearms, shoulders, neck or any other areas of the body frequently exposed to the sun… In the beginning, actinic keratoses are frequently so small that they are recognized by touch rather than sight. It feels as if you were running a finger over sandpaper.

If you have actinic keratoses, it indicates that you have sustained sun damage and could develop any kind of skin cancer – not just squamous cell carcinoma.

In keeping with the tradition of naming these suspicious invaders I’ve decided to call her Roberta. When she isn’t busy disrupting the surface of my forehead she teaches salsa lessons at the local community center and routinely sleeps with her students.

Here’s a picture of what she currently looks like when I haven’t covered her up with make-up:

actinic keratosis

actinic keratosis

My doctor assures me that we’ve caught it early enough that I can successfully treat it at home with a medicine called Aldara, a topical ointment that I apply directly to the skin for a period of twelve weeks, and that I could even wait to start treatment if I was worried at all about its effects on the baby in utero. I’ve also put it off because of my vanity, because he said it would cause the spot in question to turn a reddish color that couldn’t be concealed with make-up, and I just wanted to get through my book tour without having to keep coming up with creative answers to WHY DO YOU HAVE A HICKEY ON YOUR FOREHEAD?

I figure no one is going to notice the hickey on my forehead when my boobs are the size of nuclear warheads and leaking milk with the force of a fire hose.

I wanted to bring this up here for a few reasons:

One, The American Cancer Society recently became one of the sponsors of this website, and they asked me if I’d be willing to write about one of the ways in which cancer has affected my life.

Two, some of you have written to ask if I’ve found any more suspicious spots on my body. I think you could ask me that question every year from now until I die and the answer will always be yes. This is just what happens when you’re as careless as I was in my teens and twenties about sun exposure, and as a result I will spend the rest of my life terrified that every skin irregularity could end up threatening my life.

And finally, maybe these details will be what finally urges someone to make an appointment with a dermatologist, maybe these images will turn up in some Google search and convince someone that they should take the discoloration on their forehead seriously. And so let me urge you, if you are at all unsettled about a strange place on your skin, please don’t ignore it. And in the meantime put on some sunscreen, hug your kids, and call your mom.

  • Mandinka

    Thanks so much for this timely post. Just tonight I saw a suspicious spot on my Mum’s skin, but she brushed it aside. Now I can use your story to convince her to get it checked…or I’ll just threaten to break her fingers or something evil like that.

  • Mango Girl


    I ended up with Stage IVB Malignant Melanoma with no fore warning…think I am paranoid? DAMN right I am!

    Don’t mess with this…the hell I went through for three years (52 weeks of chemo and then the recovery…I would not go through it again!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

    GO TO DOC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Peace and Blessings…

  • Deb

    Fabulous post, Heather! Thanks for bringing this up! Next month, I celebrate 19 years as a melanoma survivor (I was 24 when diagnosed). Miraculously, the 3-year-old spot on my foot was only between a Stage I and II when I had it removed. I kept telling myself it was a blood blister that “stuck around,” until I saw an article in Woman’s Day magazine, and the melanoma photo looked just like my “spot.” Two surgeries by a wonderful plastic surgeon not only saved my life (praise God!), but I still have all my toes. A year ago, I learned that melanoma survivors cannot donate blood (or bone marrow) for life, even if they have been pronounced “cured.” And because I have avoided sun exposure for so long, I have to take vitamin D supplements to protect my bones. No, the great tan I had growing up wasn’t worth it.

  • Claus D Jensen

    Thanks for sharing the story about Roberta!

    I think I have a couple of Roberto’s myself!!

    Have a great day.. :-D

    Claus D Jensen

  • Sara

    Thank you for this, cause I clearly fall into the #3 category. I think I’ll be finding a dermatologist in my area to re-look at a mole I’ve had for years (I remember freaking out about it in high school), plus one I remember developed during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I hope they’re nothing (considering the older one’s been around for over a decade, and the newer one’s been around for at least 6 years), but it’s always good to check these things out.

    Seriously, thanks!

  • Karrey

    Ugh, this reminds me that I need to get my moles checked out. There’s one on my chest that scares me, and the prospect of skin cancer scares me even more.

  • Liesel

    Thanks for that post, Heather. I too have recently found a suspicious mole on my husband’s back. I have been putting off making him an appointment because we currently have no health insurance. (Scary.) Your post has convinced me that it is time to make the appointment. No amount of money is worth risking losing him. Thank you.

  • Jessie

    I’m glad you caught Roberta before she made herself a little too at home.
    And as someone with a strong family history of skin cancer, I thank you for reminding everyone how seriously this stuff should be taken.

  • Meg

    At the age of 26 I’ve had five friends under the age of 30 that have had the same thing you have…I think a freak out of any nature at the slightest deformed freckle is warranted.

  • Kristan

    Tell Roberta you’ve already got too many women in the family and she needs to get the f#ck out! :P

    (Unrelated: your eyes look gorgeous in that shot.)

  • Meg

    Note to self, go back to school to become a dermatologist.

  • Mamasoo

    My mom recently passed away from skin cancer, so I’ve become an annoying PITA to everyone I meet regarding sunscreen, tanning and self check-ups. Good luck with Roberta, and with Jon’s mole.

    It disturbs me, however, while reading your post that you have the American Cancer Society as a sponsor on your site. Are you actually taking money from them for their advertisments? Hope not. As a cancer survivor, that would be reprehensible.

  • Richelle

    I too am always on the lookout for new, strange marks on my body. Several years ago a noticed that a birthmark had changed colour and texture. I went to my doctor, and she referred me to another doctor. They removed my birthmark, and discovered that just below it, a little mole had grown that was cancerous. Because I noticed the change almost immediately, they caught it before it could spread, but still terrifying to find when you’re only 23!

  • Clayjack

    12 weeks of treatment?

    Why not have the spot frozen off? That’s what I’ve done with my actinic keratoses. Sure, it looks like your face was exposed to radiation for a couple days, but then you’re done.

  • Carly

    You just kicked me in the ass to make a long overdue appointment with a dermatologist. Thank you.

  • firecat

    Forget about what if you go on a book tour with a big red hickey on your forehead. Think about how stupid you’ll look on your book tour with no hair because you had to have chemo because you didn’t treat something when you could have.


    And I’m saying this out of love. You know that. We’ve had this conversation before, you and I, and I know how much cancer sucks.

    My goodness, how did I get on this soapbox?


  • Bran


    Really watch your spot after using the Aldara. I just turned 40 and had my first skin cancer (BCC) at 25. I have had a total of 13 cancers removed, many on my face. I have used Aldara twice and both times it failed. The BCC will look as if it has healed then a few months later it is back and I’ve had to have MOHS surgery on them. So just really watch them. A note to EVERYONE – check your skin and get annaul skin checks. It does not matter your age or even skin tone. I do have light skin, red hair and green eyes (green eyed people have the highest occurance of skin cancer)but that does not mean that someone with brown hair/eyes and olive skin is immune to it. I pretty much have standing appointments at the University of Utah for head-to-toe skin checks every 90 days. Trust me, it is not fun. So everyone – get checked, use sunscreen, wear hats and seek shade!

  • Tina

    Thank you so much for the reminders. It’s so important. My doctor just saved my life by removing a supicious mole that turned out to be melanoma. Would’ve never suspected a thing. I’m going to be fine because we got it early enough (although I have a nasty 6 inch scar from the removal of a Texas size of skin around the mole site). Get those spots checked out!

  • Kristi

    Hi, Heather. I am a blogger myself, dealing with my own health issues, which I know I will one day “write about my feelings” when the time is right. Do not live regretting what you could have done differently, and continue to live your life to the fullest following your heart, instincts, and gut. You and Jon will continue to remain healthy as you will continue to be the watcher for the both of you and you will remove these unwelcomed visitors as they arrive! Stay positive. MIND, BODY, and SOUL, My Dear.

  • Terri

    Just be careful with the Aldera. It literally ate the skin off my teenage daughters cheeks, it was awful. This may not happen to most people, I don’t know, and I hope it doesn’t happen to you. Just keep a close eye how it affects your skin.

  • Calli Wilson

    Hear hear! I’ve done the same thing to my husband, but I also like to show him the inch long scars I have from my mole removals to emphasize the point.

  • Delta Sierra

    So far (57) I have nothing cancerous, but I have a really unnecessary number of seborrheic keratoses. They are harmless, but look gross. Usually about 1/4 inch across, brown, rough surface. Could be so much worse, so not really complaining, I just wish the derm. would stop calling them BARNACLES, that kinda took my breath away first time I heard it. Makes me feel like I should go down to the harbour and have my bottom scraped.

  • Brooke

    Great post Dooce! I am in my late-ish twenties and am now freaking out (okay, maybe not freaking out but am very paranoid) about skin cancer. I’ve never had an incident of skin cancer or suspicious moles but I curse my teenage and early twenties self for letting me sit out in the sun without sunscreen. Luckily(?), I live in Minnesota so the sun isn’t as strong as other parts of the world and hopefully that ups my chances of not getting skin cancer.

    I now religiously apply sunscreen and encourage my friends to do the same. It’s good to hear someone’s personal experience on this matter and how much damage the sun can really do.

  • Nicole Francois

    One of my friends–at the tender age of 29–is currently battling skin cancer, and he may loose this battle however much it pains me to admit this fact. He had a suspicious mole for years, that he noticed and knew was potentially bad. But he did not have health insurance and waited until he found a job that provided coverage before getting it checked out. By that time, the cancer had spread so far as to leave him with only a 25% chance of survival. (At this time, he’s doing “well” and I think it’s more of 50/50 gamble, the odds of which will hopefully continue to improve until he’s in the clear, so to speak. HA! a little skin cancer humor for you.) I applaud you for bringing this subject to light, as I don’t think people realize how potentially and probably fatal a cancer this is and how completely treatable it is when caught early and completely preventable it is. Your a beautiful and funny writer and it truly makes me respect you and your life even more that you will be using your voice as a wake up call on this issue to sun worshippers, weird mole deniers, and other idiots.

  • typingelbow

    Way to be proactive, Heather! (Also, the spam code on this comment was “seasick mutuels.” Awesome.)

  • Amanda Brumfield

    I am in no way making fun of Roberta. Nor am I making light of skin cancer, my grandfather died from it.

    What kills me is that your skin is so flawless that you actually notice that tiny spot on your forehead.

    Meanwhile Keith Richards visits both my cheeks from time to time and sometimes naps on my chin.

    Hope all is well with Jon’s mole and Roberta. Cancer is an asshole.

  • Matin

    Thank you for this post Heather. I’ve been studying precancerous lesions for my finals in the past couple of weeks and I am very paranoid at the moment!
    My husband is pale and has a few moles especially on his back so Im gonna check them tonight. I really hope Jon’s mole is harmless and I hope you start treating Roberta before she kicks your ass:-)

    Lots of love

  • Popular Baby Pushchairs

    Oh my this Roberta chap sounds pretty nasty, we’re obviously glad your doctor believes you shouldn’t have much more trouble with her. Although you did note some worrying things about that cream your doc gave you, I might add that it’s been documented that this same stuff has been causing dreadful health problems for thousands and thousands who are told to apply it to their skin- so please be Very weary of this cream Heather!

  • Jennifer

    Thanks for posting this. The Today Show just did a segment on skin cancer and how to prevent it. Just putting on sunscreen everyday makes a huge difference.

  • sunny

    Thanks for the post, I think I have one on my forehead.

  • Sara Headington-Sass

    What a great reminder to all of us. Not everyone takes their skin seriously, but when skin cancer sneaks into your life, it can be devastating. Both my mother and father have had skin cancer so I am also a drill sargent when it comes to my family’s auspicious spots! Thanks for sharing your story and your call to action! Sara

  • sunny

    Thanks for the post, I think I have one on my forehead.

  • Anne M

    I’m so glad to see you talking about skin cancer. I had Malignant Melanoma when I was 20 years old and I didn’t really have a whole lot of sun exposure and a teen, just one or two bad burns. They caught it very early so I was blessed, but I do have a giant scar on my arm and I am starting to look like swiss cheese from the other moles they took of as a precaution. People don’t realize how common it is, especially these days.

  • Missy

    Thanks Heather. Your earlier posts actually did prompt me to make an appointment with the dermatologist. When he looked at me, he practically rolled his eyes — I live in Tucson, so gross skin damage from the sun is pretty common — and said my moles were all fine. I was totally relieved, though, and I got a cool “how strong is the sun” thing to put in my car. So to everyone reading this — get it checked out! If it’s cancer, you need treatment; if it isn’t, it’s a massive relief to know that too.

  • Jennifer

    I’m glad you posted that–I had my annual full-body check yesterday morning. I had blistering burns on my shoulders when I was young, so I’m suceptible to skin cancer. I’m proud of myself for having used a daily sunscreen since I was about 26–it really is the best defense. When people like yourself who actually talk about doing something when you notice something, it can make a difference. Thanks.

  • Missy

    @Delta Sierra: Barnacles! I love it! Sorry it makes you feel like getting scraped though.

  • Jasmine

    Thank you for using the popularity of your website to raise awareness of issues like this! I’m 25 and have had 2 suspicious moles removed. I’m one of those people who burn in spite of sunblock use and always begging my friends to quit their horrid tanning bed habits. I guess I can only take care of myself with my dr. recommended yearly full-body skin checks.

    Anyhow, I hope others appreciate you putting this information out there and sharing your experiences with skin cancer.

  • mike press

    I have some in my family who are prone and live in South Africa. We have found out the hard way that these things should never be ignored. Get it checked folks.

  • Kristen

    I was diagnosed with keratosis pilaris when I was 16, while it is not at all cancer it’s still a pain in the ass. And my doctor keeps on telling me I will grow out of it, but it has been 8 years and I see no signs of it going away.

    And of all the topical treatments I’ve been prescribed and that I’ve tried, Avon’s skin bump minimizer lotion works wonders. So tell your mother that if they ever discontinue that item, I may have to hurt someone.

  • Natalie

    Sending good vibes your way that Roberta and Jon’s Roberta (Bob) are just harmless old coots.

    Lovely post BTW – different to your usual, but thoughtful.

  • Lauren From Texas

    Yikes!!!! Time to go see the dermatologist! Thanks for writing about this so openly and honestly. I am a nazi with the sunscreen but must admit I love a good tan. I’ll try to keep Roberta in mind this hot summer in Texas!

  • Pinklu

    Moles rule. I have a huge hairy one on my elbow. HOW FUCKING SEXY IS THAT?

  • Karen

    Excellent post. Also, anybody who has a family member with a history of skin cancer needs to wear sunscreen and be checked on a regular basis. My father had basal cell carcinoma and had 1/4th of his nose removed. It was a large nose, but still, 1/4th of a nose is noticeable. My mother had pre-melanoma, which was thankfully stopped in its tracks with a topical treatment.

    Needless to say, I and my son who is as lily-white as a piece of paper, we don’t like the sun.

  • Roaming Penguin Mama

    Funny you should mention it….I just noticed a mama mole with her little baby mole on my left forearm. All the members of my mole family have checked out ok in the past, but I will get out to see my skin lady just to make sure mom and baby aren’t up to no good!

  • Anne

    Thanks for writing about this and sharing your stories about cancer. Luckily (knock on wood) my family doesn’t really have a history of cancer (I’m going to die by heart disease I’m sure). That doesn’t mean I don’t take the precautions when going out in the sun, however. Growing up I’d be called “Casper” since I’m so pale from taking care of my skin and making sure I didn’t burn. You should have seen me when I got sun-burned last year. You can still see the bikini outline on my skin since I, again, never go in the sun.

    Thanks again for sharing this and making people aware of the topic. Warm fuzzies knowing how many people you’re going to make check themselves and be aware of this. :)

  • Brooke

    Just told my fiance, His Moliness, to get an appointment. I am covered in freckles, and he, moles. Our future kids are already doomed.

  • virgotex

    Yes. Good post.

    I’ve got a 26 yr old neice who’s had more chunks than I can remember cut or burned off her skin, was getting regular “skin map” checkups, and STILL ended up with malignant melanoma and it was scary as f*cking hell but with surgery and treatment she beat it, at the age of 21.

    So yeah, keep up with the checks and don’t take Roberta and her ilk for granted.

  • The Furry Godmother

    Twice this year I have had surgery to remove skin cancers (malignant melanoma type 2). It’s scarey stuff. Needless to say, my husband and I have invested in the gallon jugs of 70 sunblock at Costco. I put it on before I get dressed and reapply all day.

    I haven’t even opened my pool this year.

    The other day, someone saw my icy white legs and pretended to be blinded by them. I told them they would stay that way because white is the new tan and showed them the six inch scar on my neck.

    Who’s a funny girl, now?


    When you start the conversation it’s amazing how many people say “oh yeah… I had….”
    I had a weird boob lump removed in my twenties but it turned out to be nothing (and small enough to not render them totally uneven!)

  • Carol from SA

    That mark on his back doesn’t look like a mole to me. Its gone beyond that. Good on you for making an appointment pronto.