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NFL coach shares skin cancer warning: 'I should have worn sunblock'

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott now checks his skin daily and regularly stays in touch with his dermatologist.

Sean McDermott, 47, is the head coach of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. He’s also a skin cancer prevention advocate, partnering with The Skin Cancer Foundation about the importance of early detection after being treated for several non-melanoma and precancerous skin growths — about a dozen or more spots in all. McDermott recently shared his story and advice with TODAY.

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott watches a preseason NFL football game on Aug. 28 in Orchard Park, New York. He often spends several hours a day outside as part of his job.
Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott watches a preseason NFL football game on Aug. 28 in Orchard Park, New York. He often spends several hours a day outside as part of his job.Jeffrey T. Barnes / AP

I’ve had squamous cell carcinoma several times. As late as last year during the season, I had three spots on the top of my head.

I also had Mohs surgery on my nose in 2017. When I was sitting there and the doctor was pulling skin off my nose, I'm like, “Now I remember why I should have worn sunblock.” Even though it was not painful, it's just not a good feeling. It took a handful of weeks for it to really heal. I have a small scar on my nose now. I'm not sure people can see it, but I can certainly see it.

I've lost track of how many spots exactly I’ve had taken off and it's a small victory when I go to the dermatologist and I don't have one biopsied — just frozen off with cryotherapy. They’re mostly on my head and neck, ears, but also a couple on an arm, top of my hand or the back of my leg.

I have a history of skin cancer in my family. My grandfather had it on his lip. But as a child, I probably had more unprotected sun exposure than my mom wanted me to. She was always pushing the sunblock, but I fought it — I fought it hard. It wasn't pleasant to be at the beach, have sand on you and then your mom's trying to rub sunblock on top of the sand.

I’m a fair-skinned person who always wanted to be tan. I could never tan, but I would get burned quite a bit.

I started going to the dermatologist well before any of my friends. My mom and dad made me go in my 20s. I used to go three or four times a year if anything came up. If I saw something that looked a little mysterious, I’d make an appointment. But then there were times when I'd gone for a routine checkup, felt like I was in pretty good shape and my dermatologist found something that just looked like a little bit of an issue.

I have a really good relationship with my current dermatologist, so I just can take a picture of something, send it to him and he'll basically say, “I need to see you.” So it's almost like a daily appointment for me if I need it.

I have fair skin and freckles, so sometimes I have to look harder because a freckle might actually be a possible skin cancer issue. The problem areas I’ve had treated often look a little bit like a dry skin spot that is raised at times.

I've had two mentors who have been directly affected by skin cancer: Jim Johnson, the defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, who died in 2009 after battling melanoma; and Ron Rivera, head coach of the Washington Football Team, who was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma last year.

It’s a reminder about wearing sun-protective clothing and sunblock. In my work, I spend more time in the sun than the typical 47-year-old man who is employed in a non-outside job. On average during the season, I spend two hours a day outside at minimum. During training camp, it’s three to four hours a day.

McDermott wears sun-protective clothing and hats when he is outside.
McDermott wears sun-protective clothing and hats when he is outside.Joshua Bessex / AP

That's why I wear long-sleeve shirts with sun protection in them, sun-protective long pants and a wide-brimmed hat. I also wear sunscreen with an SPF of above 50. I keep a hat in my car because I never know when I'm going to get caught outside going to my children’s sporting events or playing golf. I always want to be prepared and I'm always trying to err on the side of caution.

I do self-examinations of my skin ad nauseam — daily. You get out of shower, you're toweling off, you get a chance to just see anything new popping up. I always want to keep an eye on that. But it's hard to see the tops of our heads, behind our ears, the backs of our legs and the back of our body.

As I said in a video for The Skin Cancer Foundation, it’s a pain in the butt to go to the dermatologist, but I go because I want to raise my kids.

A lot of people think that it may not be convenient to go to the dermatologist, or manly for men. I'm sure some males think, “Hey, it's only for females, for looks and cosmetic reasons.” But it's for a lot more other things, in addition to just cosmetic.

It's something that you should schedule. You’ve just got to make it a habit, muscle memory, to where it's just part of what you do, just like your yearly physical. You make once- or twice-a-year appointments. That routine is important just because you never know.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.