After you’re diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, you’ll likely need surgery or medication. But it doesn’t end there.
“The medical treatment by your doctor is one aspect of your treatment, but it’s not the only part,” says Richard L. Torbeck III, MD. He is an assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and director of cancer surgery at Blavatnik Family Chelsea Medical Center in New York City.
In fact, he says, studies on stress levels, diet, and mental well-being during cancer suggest a connection to cancer management and progression.
“I advocate to all of my patients to focus on the things you can control, such as diet, exercise, mental health and well-being, and try to not get lost in what you can’t, such as treatment regimens or methods of cancer treatment,” Torbeck says.
Here are a few places you can turn your attention.
Be Smart About Sun Protection
If you already have skin cancer, your risk of getting other skin cancers later is higher. But you can help keep that from happening by protecting your skin from harmful UV rays. Staying out of the sun entirely is the best way to do it, but that’s not always an option. Instead, depend on these defenses:
Stay in during peak sun hours. The UV index is highest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, even when it’s cloudy. When you can, choose times outside this window to enjoy the great outdoors.
Wear sun-protective clothing. Cover up when you go out with wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, long sleeves, and pants. You can also buy clothing with UV protection in the fabric.
Slather on sunscreen. “Choose a SPF 30+ broadband sunscreen that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, and reapply every 2-3 hours,” Torbeck says.
Ditch tanning beds forever. They’re never safe, and their UV rays are stronger than those from the sun.
Keep a Close Eye on Skin Spots
Many people with basal cell carcinoma get another one within 5 years. Take a good look at your skin on a regular basis so you can catch skin cancer before it gets out of hand.
“I tell people to ‘check your birthday suit on your birthday,’” Torbeck says. He also suggests taking photos of any spots you’re concerned about. This way you can show your doctor how they’ve changed over time.
When you check, remember to look for your ABCDEs:
Asymmetry. One half doesn’t match the other half.
Border irregularity. Blurry or undefined spots or moles.
Color change. More than one color on a spot or mole
Diameter. Bigger than 6 mm (the size of a pencil eraser)
Evolution. The spot looks different than others on your body or changes over time.
Torbeck says evolution is the most important one to watch for. “Look for changes in size, shape, color, itching, bleeding, a wound that doesn’t heal, or a pimple bump that doesn’t go away.”
Find Emotional Support
A cancer diagnosis can cause sadness, anxiety, or anger, especially if you’re dealing with a change in your appearance after surgery or treatment. Emotional support can help. Options include:
Support groups. Talking to other people who are going or have gone through the same thing often makes you feel less alone. “I direct people with basal cell carcinoma to the American Academy of Dermatology’s patient page that links to support groups or the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Robin’s Nest program that can connect you to resources,” Torbeck says.
Individual counseling. Visits with a licensed therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker can help you process your thoughts and feelings, and even learn new patterns of thinking.
Friends and family. Be honest with those you love and trust when you’re struggling. Find people you can lean on in your everyday life.
Try journaling if the thought of talking to others about your feelings is uncomfortable. Just writing down how you feel can help you make better sense of it all.
Help Your Body Relax
It’s not healthy to ignore the stress caused by your cancer, but you also can’t dwell on it. Sometimes it can help just to do the everyday things that make you feel like yourself.
Make a list of the things that help you unwind and pencil them into your day. For you, this might mean:
- Time outside (during safe hours)
- Listening to music
- Warm baths
- Deep breathing exercises
- Doing a hobby you love
“I can’t stress it enough: the most important part about living with advanced basal cell carcinoma is to focus on things that bring joy and happiness,” Torbeck says.