Traci French thought she was just dealing with an ordinary, but stubborn blemish when she noticed the spot at the top of her lip five years ago.
“It was very scaly, it kind of looked like dry skin,” French, who lives in Monrovia, California, told TODAY. “It would get red a little bit and then it would look like a pimple would start. Then it would go away and the dryness would reoccur.”
French, now 50, worried that the spot kept returning, so she showed it to her dermatologist, Dr. Shirley Chi in Arcadia, California, during her annual skin exam.
“Usually, I know right away that this is a skin cancer. But in this case, it really just looked like a pimple,” Chi said. “It looked like a skin-colored bump.”
She recommended that French should wait a couple of months to see if it would go away. When it didn’t, Chi shaved off a sample for a biopsy. The diagnosis: squamous cell carcinoma, a common skin cancer that most frequently develops on sun-exposed areas of the body, including the head, neck, back of the hands and lower legs, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
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French had spent a lot of time in the sun from 8th grade through high school while playing sports like soccer and softball. She used sunscreen, but not all the time on her face, she said.
About 700,000 new cases of squamous cell carcinoma are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Chi called it the second-worst kind of skin cancer after melanoma because it can spread to other parts of the body and become potentially life-threatening.
But if it's found early, the American Cancer Society noted, squamous cell carcinoma is considered to be highly curable.
People may not think about the area around the lip as much when they put on sunscreen, Chi said, so the lips can be vulnerable. The type of sunblock they use can also determine how much coverage they get. A recent study found people do a worse job applying an SPF moisturizer to their face than a traditional sunscreen, missing more skin.
After her diagnosis, French just wanted to have the spot removed. So, in the summer of 2016, she underwent Mohs micrographic surgery, a procedure to remove all cancerous tissue while keeping as much healthy skin as possible. Doctors had to take out a quarter-sized lesion, then reconstructed that area of her face.
French “kind of freaked out” when she saw how much flesh had to be taken out and the recovery was painful. But she’s happy with how the surgery turned out, relieved that the cancer is gone and pleasantly surprised by how well her lip has healed. Just a tiny hard-to-see scar remains.
She now puts on more sunscreen and wears a hat whenever she spends time outdoors in the sun, she said.
What does squamous cell carcinoma look like?
Look for a new bump or scaly spot on your skin that doesn’t go away, Chi advised.
People with weakened immune systems — including patients who have had organ transplants, are infected with HIV or take medication that suppresses their immune systems — are at greater risk for squamous cell skin cancer.
How to protect all of your face from the sun:
Dr. Chi offered this advice:
- To protect your lips, wear lip balm with SPF every day, even on cloudy days and especially if you enjoy outdoor sports and activities. “On a cloudy day, people forget they need some protection and that’s when they get burned,” she said.
- To protect your eye area, try using a sport sunscreen, which tends to run less than regular formulations. Always wear sunglasses when you’re outside or when you’re driving on a sunny day because you also get a lot of ultraviolet rays through the windshield. Some makeup powders also contain SPF.
- Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to your ears, including the lobes and tips.
- Be vigilant: If you have a spot on your skin that’s not healing, see your dermatologist.