An unfiltered fire hose of flaming condemnation

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.

  • Had a visit with the derm on Monday after husband said: You’ve a funny looking zit by your ear. NOT a zit but mole that had changed. Derm said it looked OK but lopped it off & biopsied it to play it safe.

    Thanks for reminding us all about the importance of getting routine mole checks!!

  • Anonymous

    You probably will never know how many people’s lives you may have saved by taking up this noble cause. Keep pushing people to protect themselves from the sun and get checked by their dermatologist. I am one to talk as I have never been checked, have umpteen “Robertas”, have a family history of skin cancer. So, I am going to make me an appointment today and I thank you for giving me a much needed kick in the hiney!

  • I have one of those sandpapery spots on my face near my nose- skin cancer central thanks to my teenage years spent in the California sun. I’ll now be sure to have it checked out.

    Thanks, Heather.

  • Thanks for the kick in the butt. I’ve made an appointment with my Dr. and will get a few Roberta’s checked out myself. 🙂

  • Laura

    THANK YOU HEATHER for writing this! I have witnessed the excruciating pain, heartache, and devastating effects of Melanoma and its toxic treatments including bio-chemo and IL-2 therapy, and drastic surgeries on my grandmother, husband and father- the latter two are my beloved Melanoma warriors and survivors. Be proactive people! Melanoma can be deadly when not caught early because it is one of the more difficult cancers to treat. Prevention is the key, wear sunscreen, stay in the shade, “pale” is the new tan 😉

  • Ana

    May I ask a little question? If it’s a sort of a mole, like a little lump, what exactly would the dermatologist do to check it out? …Would it involve needles, like, right there and then?

    Because I have this thing on my leg. And I’m a pretty anxious person. I need to know what to expect before I can get myself to set up anything.


  • Rebecca from Memphis

    if only one person takes this to heart then your job is well done. I had a “spot” cut off of my back about 10 yrs ago and I was lucky it was not a cancerous spot however the cutting off hurt like hades!! Maybe the spot on your forehead will turn out to be nothing of importance at all.

    On another note….
    Look forward to reading your blog each day! Love you humor, wisdom and insight! Some days makes me laugh out loud!!

  • Dee

    I put sunscreen on after reading this post… thank you!

  • I am right on board with you Heather. I have had several suspicious spots removed and now am a skin nazi for me and my family. They hate me. But I don’t care.

  • Lindsey

    Thank you. I have just made an appointment with my dermo to examine a patch near my hair line that is always darker in the winter and spotty in the summer. I know exactly what it is from- I missed it in an early morning sunscreen application 2 years ago in Key West. Only that spot burned and has been discolored ever since. I should have known better. I found 2 cancerous moles on my fiancee’s back last year and saved his life. I always forget about myself though.

  • Elizabeth

    Without stopping to read all the posts along the way to see if this question has been asked already, had John ever noticed the spot before you brought it to his attention? I just got a bit of a laugh out of “has it changed color?” ‘Cause how could he possibly know? 🙂 Good for you, making your children’s father take care of himself — men are terrible at it!

  • Thanks for bringing this up, Heather. i have needed to have my moles checked out for way too long – and i noticed one last week looks very weird now. i’ve been putting it off because i have other health issues AND my mom just had a stroke so all of our time has been spent taking care of her.

    i’ll be making an appointment shortly.

  • Oh my god, googling “skin cancer” yielded the most horrifying images known to man.

  • Amy K

    I just had a Roberta cut out of me with Mohs surgery. Get my stitches out tomorrow. It was basal cell carcinoma and I hope no one ever gets one! Looks like a red blob that never goes away and sometimes even throbs and hurts. Mine was on my cleavage or where my cleavage SHOULD be 🙂 I had noticed it and went in for a check and a full-body check too. Wear sunscreen please! it helps prevents wrinkles too 🙂

  • Aspen

    Thanks for sharing your story Heather. I actually got my diagnosis YESTERDAY. I go in for surgery the first of June to have a spot removed from my leg. I too had to get my vanity in check. Because of my addiction to tanning, I am now going to have a hole in my leg. So thanks for sharing, like you…I will now constantly be checking every spot on my body for the rest of my life. Vanity is a bitch!

  • i got all excited about roberta teaching salsa, but she really kind of a slut. i’m afraid i can’t hang out with her.

  • Thanks for this post. I’ve been meaning to go to a dermatologist forever to get some spots checked out, but something always seems to come up and I think, “I’ll do that next week.” You have officially convinced me to make an appointment TODAY!

    If it turns out I catch any cancer early, I’ll give you credit for saving my life. HERO!

  • Holly

    While putting on sunscreen seems like a good idea (when the other option is full-blown sun exposure) many of the chemicals used in sunscreen are incredibly dangerous. There are dangerous compounds in chemical sunscreens. Benzophenone is one of the worst, and pops up in various forms in most sunscreen formulas. The main chemicals in sunscreen can promote the growth of cancer through free radical generation and parabens are endocrine disruptors that produce effects similar to that of estrogen, which can cause irregularities in sexual development and possibly cancer. Creams that are rubbed on the skin are more quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. May of these chemicals are already banned in the EU. The FDA has suggested limited usage of these chemicals, but like other cosmetic products there is no directive, only a suggestion. Yay for America!
    So, not to be a total downer: try to choose paraben-, PABA-, pthalate-free sunscreens, whose main ingredients are titanium dioxide, octocylene, and/or zinc oxide.
    They may not be as creamy and yummy smelling as others, but they are safer.
    That’s it from the product police. I love you Dooce!

  • Dooce, I called the dermatologist today and made an appointment! Here’s to you, Roberta.

  • I’m 36 and have around 15 scars from having various moles removed. So far, they have all been benign. I was told by my dermatologist that I need to revisit every year and have 3-5 taken off each year “just to be safe”. Yippee for me. I’m sure there is nothing an aging woman wants more than additional scar tissue.

    Hang in there. It’s a high price to pay for the tanning beds of our teens…but damn I had a nice tan 🙂

  • thanks for posting this. I’m 38 weeks pregnant myself and have a bottle of 70 SPF baby sunscreen in the cabinet ready to go. My baby’s daddy had a large section of his scalp removed due to melanoma right before we found out we were pregnant. At his 3 month check up they found out he had Hodgkins Lymphoma. Luckily because he had a nagging wife telling him to go get his mole checked out we were able to treat both early on. He’ll be done with treatments 3 days before my due date, whew. I’ll be so excited to celebrate his first father’s day with him as a new dad and a 2x cancer survivor at 35.
    It never hurts to get it checked out. Roberta can’t salsa her way out of this one.

  • We were such the sun generation in our youth and we’re all paying for it now. I mean, I remember at least 3 terrible sunburns I had as a kid. And remember the answer to the sunburns? No, it wasn’t prevention. It was Noxema! AFTER the fact. AFTER that sensitive little baby skin was burned to a crisp, put on some Noxema! Like that did any good other than to boost Noxema sales. Nowadays a sunburn on a kid will get you a visit from Child Protective Services! All that sun damage is cumulative and it doesn’t matter how good we’re being now (although it’s important to be). One member of my family has had several basal cell carcinomas removed. He ran around shirtless as a kid. Well, let me tell you, I’m like one of those monkeys at the zoo the way I pick and pore over his body now for any unsual discolorations. Check yourself AND your loved ones – FREQUENTLY!

  • Denise

    Heather- thanks for the reminder to all of us. My mother died of melanoma when she was 55, I was 22. My mother was a beautiful, fair-skinned, light-eyed, red head. I got the fair skin and light eyes but not the great red hair! 🙁 She had a mole on her back that (in retrospect) was the likely culprit. So many factors impacted the possibility of early detection – it was on her lower back so she didn’t see it regularly, she was divorced (i.e. no partner to help her notice), I, the baby in the family, had left for college so i wasn’t around as often either. We had noted the mole before but she wrote it off as ‘just another mole’ – but it was ugly…we should’ve known. During one visit home from college I was rubbing her back and noticed the mole was gone…there was a mark on her skin where it had once resided and i asked her if she had it removed but she said ‘no, it must have fallen off.’ Unfortunately that is not how skin cancer operates. it was only a year or so later when she began having other symptoms…digestive problems that were misdiagnosed as acid reflux and then a brain bleed but even then doctors didn’t realize what was going on. It took nearly 2 months before she was diagnosed…once they realized she had a mass the size of a football in her abdomen and the biopsy revealed melanoma…then they realized it had metastisized to her brain, causing the bleed. Doctors told us there was no treatment, no hope. She died just 3 weeks after her diagnosis.
    My mom was not a sunbather, she did not frequent tanning beds, or refuse to use sunscreen. I am sure she had an occassional sunburn but never due to intentional exposure. Melanoma is not a punishment given to those who subject their skin to harsh elements of the sun…it is just another horrible type of cancer that can happen to anyone, but especially those of us who are fair-skinned, light-eyed, or who have a family history.
    I visit my dermatologist every year, I am an avid user of sunscreen for myself and my daughter, and I am on a personal campaign to make pale skin fashionable! 🙂 I hope everyone reading your post will do the same!

  • I am so glad you are writing about this because so many people are unaware of how dangerous skin cancer can be. My 86 yr old father has skin cancer and is having surgery next week. A 23 yr old girl who lived one block away with her parents died last week from skin cancer after battling the disease for over a year. Thank you for bringing this to everyone’s attention.

  • I recently had two moles removed and biopsied, with one coming back with mildly atypical cells and the other clean. My husband had two taken last week, still waiting on biopsy results.
    Thank you for writing about this–so many people just don’t take that bastard sun seriously.

  • MsKTeacherLady

    I’ve had some concerning spots recently that I’ve agonized over getting looked at. Today your post lit the fire under me that I needed to go get checked. Thank you thank you thank you.

  • Betsy

    Whew! I’m just glad you finally posted something a little more along the lines of the WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE pathos. Who said wrinkly comforter and mismatched tiles?

    My mom had melanoma and that should’ve pushed me to the derm pronto, but it didn’t.


    Getting off duff…

  • I have a freckle on my arm that looks mischievous, but I’ve always called it Oskar. Yes, with a k. I’m glad you wrote about this, though sad that medical care is so expensive that it’s more likely someone will wait out a suspicious skin bump rather than pay $100 to get it looked at.

  • Erin

    It’s not for not, Heather. When I was reading about your skin cancer detection/removal, last year?, it indeed prompted me to make an appointment with a dermatologist. Which meant finding one, for starters.
    I felt so much better for taking care of this…I have fair skin and have been sunburned too many times to count, incl. one particularly bad incident where my face had 2nd degree burns.
    I checked out OK. Thank you so much for sharing your story, as it definitely inspired me to be proactive about my health in this regard.

  • Way to be educational! I get teased for being a pale Mexican-American. People say I’m paranoid but you’re proving me right! Thanks

  • Anonymous

    I find it amusing that the cream you’ve been prescribed to treat Roberta is the same cream used to treat genital warts.

  • ChrisV

    Coincidentally, I just had something frozen on my face last night at my regular D.O.’s office – hopefully that will take care of the little booger. I’ve had one removed from my forehead – approx. 7 years ago – by a dermo.

    You never know – sometimes I get all concerned about one of my bumps and it’s nothing – but when you get that call that it’s cancer, oy.

    Love a sunscreen that I don’t think is available here but is in Canada: L’Oreal Ombrelle.

  • my dermatologist is ADORABLE. i didn’t know this when i called to make an appointment about 6months post-partum, i just knew the acne was getting out of control and i had a mole to remove, not b/c it was bad but b/c it was in an annoying place and i’d always wanted it removed. it was august, i was pale as a ghost, frumpy, leaking breastmilk, with a baby on my hip coming into the office, as this young, sexy, skinny chicklette was leaving, being chastized publicly in the waiting room by a hottie for having gotten too much sun and how she was going to die if she didn’t start being more careful. how fun to discover this hottie was my doctor, i was his next patient, and he praised my milky white complexion as being excellent (apart from the acne, which he gave me cream for and all was better). vindication!

  • I am only 27 and have had three pre-cancerous actinic keratoses removed from my arms. The importance of sunscreen cannot be stressed enough! 🙂 I am glowingly white, so I use 15 spf on my face everyday and go to the beach in long sleeves. With a tent.

  • Thank you for spreading the news! I was diagnosed with melanoma after finding a dark mole on my back at the age of 24. People need to realize that the earlier you “catch” cancer, especially the fast-spreading melanoma, the higher your chances are of not having to go through the horrors of chemo and radiation (which I did not, thankfully! But I know many who have) or a slow painful death. Please, please, please everyone – if you see anything that makes you even slightly suspicious … don’t wait! Go see your dermatologist! Especially if you have a family history of skin cancer, like I do.

  • Anonymous

    I hope all goes well for you and Jon. You’re good to get everything checked out! Another caution on Aldara – in particular while you’re pregnant. I had a very similar experience to commenter 84. Flu-like symptoms — nausea, vomiting, low-grade fever. Not to mention the permanent reddening of my skin. Scary stuff. It’s an immunomodulator, which works by stimulating your immune system to send cells to the site where it’s applied. Knowing that it affects the immune system, and having experienced those side affects…personally, I will never use the stuff again. Changing my immune system? No thank you. If there’s an alternative treatment option, I’d take it. Cryotherapy and laser treatment are just 2 of several options.

  • Thank You so much for writing this. I have been wanting to see a dermatologist for quite some time (i found TWO troubling spots on my back). I have called a few dermatologist around town and ALL of them want my primary doctor to refer me to them. Sigh. So I made an appointment with my primary doctor…and the earliest they can get me in – 3 months from now! So i wait 3 months for a doctors appt…so i can wait 3 more for the next doctors appointment. So frustrating.

    Your post reminds me though to keep pushing these doctors to take it seriously and get me in. So thank you. I fully plan to be a persistant little Bitch until they check out my spots.

  • Sarah

    This is happening because your bathroom tiles are so uncoordinated. :-p

  • Jenni

    Thanks for the cold shower. I’ve been putting this off for months, nay years. Time to call the doctor, get a referral to a dermatologist. My hands are starting to look like dragon skin.

  • It made me so happy to see that the ACS is sponsoring your website. I thought it was admirable of you to write about your skin cancer scares over the years, since as a society, we only seem to glamorize tan bodies. At age 31, my friends have finally stopped laughing at my floppy hat and giant sunglasses and bucket of sunscreen during our trips to the lake, because I can now lovingly point out their crows feet and over-abundance of sun-freckles.

    My mother’s first husband died from skin cancer when he was 19 years old, and they’d just had their first child together. He didn’t even know he had it until it was too late, as the large skin lesion was on the back of his head, hidden by a mop of hair that can only be described as a “white man’s 70’s afro”. My mother actually found the lesion when she was perming his hair. (Yes, she really did that.) Unfortunately, even youth was not on his side, as it was stage 4 by the time they got it looked at.

    My own father died at 40 years old from glioblastoma multiforme.

    Cancer sucks.

    I have another close relative that is battling Leukemia. For the first time, I’m doing something of value. I’m working with Team in Training to raise money for LLS. I’m actually running a marathon. A real one – not those pussy-5Ks. Every day that I run in the Texas heat, knowing that it’s just going to keep getting hotter and hotter until I either spontaneously combust or melt, I have one motivational speech that I mentally give myself. And that is, this sucks a lot less than having cancer.

    I often wonder what it would be like if you trained for a marathon. Your writing is so colorful and entertaining that I’m quite sure you could make the mundane, monotonous running in circles on a hot track, while dodging the dog-crap that my ass-monkey neighbors don’t seem to have a problem NOT PICKING UP, seem so much more humorous than it is. Because when I’m running, I’m not laughing.

  • Tiffany

    Hey, check out the latest copy of Good Housekeeping. There is an article in there about a woman who used the Aldera. Pretty interesting…I just had a full body exam myself. And I thought the gyno was an awkward appointment. Eek.

  • Jennifer McGuire

    I have fair skin, lots of moles (none suspicious, had them all my life) and “see a dermatologist, just in case” has been on my list for a while. I just made an appointment. Thanks!

  • Ray

    Glad to hear that you caught that pre-cancerous spot in time. And I hope that Jon’s mole is not cancerous.

  • Carrie Russell

    I’m glad that you tell us these stories. For starters it has really made me look twice at my moles and really wonder about a few.

    But how do you know? How do you know a mole is a possibility for anything other than being a mole?

    I think that is where I am confused as I know I have a mole on my back that isn’t circular but its flat to the touch and not raised on the skin.

    Any advice or places I can do to read more up on this?

    Thank you for being honest with people.

  • Both my father and uncle have had melanoma. Sadly, my uncle lost his battle a few years back. My dad uses the same medication as you to treat the precancerous moles. Since having a baby, I am much concerned about everyone’s skin, especially the baby’s skin. When I went to the pharmacy to ask about sunscreen, the manager had the gall to say that he never used sunscreen on his children and they turned out fine. Yikes! Nonetheless, I purchased a tube of sunscreen for when Wes is a little older and spends some more time in the sun.

  • Thanks for the reminder that hubby and I both need to go and have full body checks.

    My dad has used that stuff you are talking about and I have to say, that he was miserable when he used it. He had to put it all over his face and it looked awful but it did the job.

  • My husband’s had two or three sorts of skin cancer (not melanoma)so far, and he’s due for a check by his dermatologist.

    As for me, I had one close call. My dermatologist took an irregularly-shaped mole off my foot a few years ago that turned out to be nothing. But I could tell by the look on his face he thought my days were SO numbered. He basically warned me not to even look at sunny photos or I could get melanoma. Next time he sees me I imagine him bursting into tears, silently wording my obituary to himself.

    Blondish/fair skin/freckled soul that I am, that puts me in the top category for skin cancer. Thank goodness I’ve never been a sun worshipper. I’m closer to a vampire, actually, minus the teeth. And the taste for blood.


  • As someone who donates pieces of herself to the dermatologist far too regularly (and burns through car windows), THANK YOU for being honest and candid about this. At least I know there is one person out there who wouldn’t call me crazy(ier).

  • Krista

    Hey, this is my first time commenting, though I’ve stalked your blog a long time. I grew up in Hawaii, where I had an awesome tan but never ever applied sunscreen. I’m in my mid-20s now, and I’ve been thinking for a while about going to a dermatologist to have him check out some moles. This post made me actually make an appointment. So, thank you!

  • when i was diagnosed with skin cancer (basal cell, thank goodness) a few months ago, some friends and family members finally got appointments to see a dermatologist. after being told for years that they should get regular check ups. sometimes reality has to hit close to home before people take action. make an appointment today, please! the sooner you catch abnormalities, the easier it is to treat them.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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