Kari Cummins didn’t think much of it when she first shared pictures of her skin cancer on social media. But one image in particular has shot around the internet. It shows in clear detail the results of skin cancer surgery on her face.
It may be a shock for some, but it’s more common than you think, says Mary Spraker, MD, associate professor of dermatology at Emory University School of Medicine. It’s part of a multi-step process called Mohs surgery, typically used to remove certain kinds of skin cancers (basal cell and squamous cell). Doctors remove tissue and then look at it under a microscope to make sure they got all of the cancer. If they didn’t, the surgeon removes more tissue and repeats the process until all the cancer is gone.
Then the surgeon repairs the skin with stiches. Usually this is all done within a few hours. And a hole like the one on Cummins's face, and even bigger, is fairly common, Spraker says.
It didn’t look like much, says Cummins, who was expecting her fifth child when she first noticed it. Just a couple of small white bumps on her chin. “I thought it was like an underground pimple. Some kind of adult acne or weird skin pregnancy thing.”
Though she’d had a couple of skin cancers removed a few years before, those were different -- red spots on her forehead that would scab and bleed. Her doctor told her they were basal cell carcinoma.
But when the new bumps kept growing and changing shape, she went to the doctor, who told her that it was skin cancer again.
So why did these bumps look different? It turned out to be a different, common kind of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinoma. And, her doctor told her, this one was growing away from the surface of her skin instead of toward it.
Soon after the picture was taken, the surgeon closed the wound. Now, both the cancer and the hole are gone.
Cummins wanted to share the images to raise awareness about taking care of your skin.
“I spent my summers as a teenager pretty much at the lake daily with friends. My mom was super sunscreen conscious. And we always wore it when she was around. But you know when your parents aren't around, you don't always do what you're supposed to do.”
Cummins hopes people who read her story don’t make the same mistake. If you must be in the sun, here’s what dermatologists suggest:
- Wear water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF rating of at least 30.
- Look for “broad spectrum” on the label. That means it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
- Apply at least every 2 hours.
- Cover your skin whenever you can.
- Use a wide-brimmed hat to protect face and shoulders from the sun.
- Avoid the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.
Cummins also regrets time she spent at tanning beds when she was younger. That ages your skin and makes you more likely to develop skin cancer, Spraker says. If you want a safer tan, consider one of the FDA-approved self-tanning lotions at your local drugstore. But you still have to put on sunscreen. Most of those lotions don’t protect you from the sun.
And there’s something else Cummins wants to stress: Go to the dermatologist.
It was a skin cancer scare with her mom that first got her there.
“She had one [growth] removed from her bottom eyelid. She had part of her ear taken off. She had a big lesion on her shoulder area. It was a golf-ball sized hole, and she had to get a skin graft for that one,” Cummins says.
When caught early, your doctor can usually help you recover fully from most skin cancer, Spraker says. The earlier you catch it, the better. So keep an eye on your own skin.
Every month or so, inspect your body. Use a mirror to look at areas that you can’t usually see. Call your dermatologist if you notice anything on your skin that bleeds, grows, itches, or changes over time.
Cummins’s skin cancer has not gone unnoticed by her children. She still has a scar. “It's kind of scary when Mom has a bunch of stitches in her face,” she says. She has tried to use it to teach them about proper skin care.
“They've gotten to see what I've been through with the surgeries and the stitches and the bruising and all of that, and I tell them: ‘This is why you have to wear sunscreen. So that this doesn't happen.’"