This here bringer of the pooper to the fun party

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.

  • Thanks for sharing the story about Roberta!

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

    Have a great day.. 😀

    Greetings,
    Claus D Jensen

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • typingelbow

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

  • 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
    M

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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. 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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!)

  • That tiny little discoloration?? How did you even SEE that? I have all sorts of discolorations on my face. But that’s because I’m 42. I think old ladies like us call them “liver spots.”

  • I was just wondering what kind of sun exposure you had as a kid/teen? I didn’t know if you went to the beach repeatedly and didn’t wear sunscreen or sun-bathed in the backyard without any protection covering your skin, or if this is just the result of prolonged daily exposure to the sun while you grew up in TN? I’m not that far from your homeplace and I’ve never thought the sun was so bad here it could mess me up like that.

    I really don’t want any “Robertas” on my forehead later in life.

  • Jo

    I just sent a link to this post to my husband. His family has a history of skin cancer, I’m 18 weeks pregnant, and he has a suspicious mole or two that I’ve been begging him for WEEKS to go get checked out. Unfortunately, he’s very doctor-averse so it’s a bit like pulling teeth without any painkillers. But I’m not ready to be a single parent, much less a single first-time parent. Dramatic? Yes. Effective guilt tripping? Hopefully.

    Hopefully your post will finally give him the kick in the ass he needs. Either that or my incessant nagging will finally wear on his last nerve.

  • Dana N

    While I should be checking my Roberta’s, Nancy’s, Lisa’s, Norma,’s, etc. (there are just way too many to count!)I do have to share that my dog, Mike, just had a tumor removed from his back right leg. I don’t know how or why he got this but all of a sudden, there it was. And now he’s limping around with a lamp shade on his head so that he won’t lick the incision to death. Hopefully he is now cancer free! What does that say about me that I will take my dog in for emergency surgery but I keep putting off my own check up?

  • dk

    How is it that John has no hair on his back?

  • Anonymous

    I just read an article about Aldara in Family Circle (I think). The woman’s spots got more than just a little red, so be prepared. But she did say it worked wonders and provided her with new, undamaged skin.

  • dk

    Sorry, I do know how to spell Jon’s name.

  • Kristen

    Heather, I’ve had a weird-looking mole on my forearm for a long time now, and I just NOW called and made an appointment with a dermatologist to check it out. I think about it every now and then, have a day or two of certainty that I’m going to die because of it, but always rationalize my way out of getting it checked out. Thank you for lighting the fire under my ass.

  • Your timing is amazing. Today we go back to the Large-Highly Regarded Medical Institution (can you say cluster-f*ck?) to find out how much they want to cut off the top of my boyfriend’s head. This time. A year ago he had a wide area excision for melanoma on his scalp and we found another Nasty Spot about two weeks ago that came back melanoma too.

    I’m not happy.

    I have to go get checked too. I’ve felt a couple of baby Robertas on my person. When I was a kid we didn’t have sunscreen (I’m old) and I have a feeling I’m going to pay for all those horrid sunburns I earned in the cornfields of Indiana at a youth.

  • Thank you Heather. I’m now getting Ralph, my friend on my forearm checked out.

  • I really appreciate this story Heather, as cancer is currently a big worry in my family, with my dad waiting to hear back on his bone cancer test.:(
    I actually have two suspicious spots Im thinking of getting checked. thanks for reminding me. I better get it done!:)
    Bianca
    ivoryandmoss.blogspot.com

  • Rhi

    I’ve had to have several moles removed from my body – thank goodness none of them were cancerous. But, one was removed from my breast and I just have to say that any career I may have had as a topless model is now over. Sheesh.

  • We live in Utah and my husband has seen a couple of dermatologists here. He’s had several basal cell carcinomas removed and a handful of squamous cells as well.

    RESEARCH Aldara before applying it to your head. My husband used it on a spot (much larger than yours, so he was using more of the medication) and endured unexpected side effects… mood swings, depression, mental stuff in general. We couldn’t figure out what was happening. It’s a long story, but we finally linked it to his use of Aldara. Many people use the drug with no side effects, but if you’re prone to depression and anxiety… you might want to consider having your precancer (or future ones) removed via the burn or scrape method. A little scabby, but quick and definitely doesn’t mess with brain chemistry.

    Just something to consider… Google Aldara side effects… really.

  • Jessica

    Glad you are talking about this. I’m 25 and just has a 3″ mass of my back removed … Melanoma is a bitch!

  • I have a girlfriend with a few Robertas and the sun/skin cancer problem. I think she’s up to SPF 60 now, and she goes in every six months to have something removed. I wish I could give her some of my melanin, then she wouldn’t have to worry.

  • bohica

    Time to have my husband checked out. He has a fingernail-sized spot on the back of his thigh that is exactly as you described: feels and looks like sand-paper and has been exposed to the sun (when he was a kid and spent all his time in the sun in California). He’ll hate that I’ve found something new to obsess about. Oh well!

  • Ugh.

    Yes, I’m making an appointment soon.

  • dooce

    # 22. mommaruthsays, we took family vacations to the beach every year, but I blame daily sun exposure. I never wore sunscreen, and I’ve been badly sunburned more than two or three dozen times. And then in high school I routinely visited a tanning bed. It’s a miracle I haven’t turned into one giant multiplying skin cell.

  • Brenda

    I went to my primary doctor yesterday and got a referal for a dermatologist. I am going to have some moles checked and a very suspicious “thing” on my forhead checked out.

  • I’m glad you caught Roberta before she had a chance to become a little harder to evict. My mother had skin cancer when I was a kid and I cannot even begin to describe how much more careful I was with my skin as a result. I’m about the color of a ghost – maybe a little more white – but it’s worth it to always be able to notice the small changes in moles and freckles and take them to the dermatologist before they become a bigger problem.

    Thank you so much for this post! I hope it encourages people to take a closer look at their body.

  • *Love*

  • Roberta

    No, please don’t call it Roberta. That’s my name and I don’t want to be associated with a precancerous mole!! ;)Also, I can’t dance, and would never sleep with my students, if I had any.

  • I was careless in my teens and 20’s too. I have my first dermatologist appt on June 1. I have several nasty looking moles. Thanks for always being so honest.

  • Ellen

    I’m very anxious about spots, too. I never liked tanning (thankfully) but I know I still got too much sun as a kid. That reapplication business was the worst.

    I’m glad everyone posting is inspired or takes this as seriously as you.

    PEOPLE, GET IT CHECKED OUT IMMEDIATELY. Nag your family. My father-in-law died from melanoma entering the blood stream and riddling his body. It’s rare but it happens.

  • Thanks for making this post, and also, being visible about your reasons for this post. 🙂

    I use Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunblock SPF 85 every single day, rain or shine. I’m 25, but I have the family history and the skin tone/hair color to indicate, with big flashing neon signs, SKIN CANCER RISK in the future.

  • Karen

    Thanks for the information. I should take some steps my self just to check things out.
    And on the makeup issue with covering the red spots, have you tried Bare Escentuals? I am totally in love with it and have been for many years. Just thought I would pass that along to you.
    P.S. I purchased Diorshow after I saw it on your site and totally love it too. Thanks for the info.

  • OK, you have officially freaked me out. I am calling the doc today!!

  • Oh man, I know I am at risk: light colored eyes, fair skin, fried myself as a teen, etc. but I can’t afford to do anything about it yet. Damn Utah sun! (shakes fist)

  • Jenna

    I was told yesterday that since I brown up like jambalaya sausage WITH sunblock on that I should go to the tanning booth twice a week just because I can… And I live in Colorado, a permanent tanning booth.

    I then started a skin cancer shpiel that my mother would have been proud of. Thank goodness for that mother and her obsessive need to lather me in sunscreen. I’m going to go call her now. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Rachel

    Calling my dermatologist today to find out when my last mole-check was. I too am a pale-faced one; one who spent the early 1980s lying outside slathered in baby oil and surrounded by a few aluminum foil reflectors to get as much UV out of that New Hampshire sun as possible. The stupidness of it is mind boggling. Thanks for the reminder and wishing you good news from the appointments.