Skin cancer wasn’t supposed to happen to Adele Wiggins.
Two years ago, Wiggins was a 21-year-old junior at LSU, and she had never been to a dermatologist.
She didn’t need to, she thought. She had never lain in a tanning bed, and she always wore sunscreen at the beach.
“I definitely thought that wouldn’t happen to me,” she says. “Maybe it would, but not until I’m older. It wouldn’t be that bad.”
But after a presentation on skin cancer at her sorority, Wiggins realized the rapidly growing mole on her back could be serious.
That week she was diagnosed with melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer that kills about 10,000 Americans each year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Melanoma is rare — about 1 percent of skin cancers — but one in five Americans will develop some form of skin cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Most skin cancer patients develop either basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, which are less likely to be fatal but still kill about 2,000 people, the Cancer Society says.
“It can affect any race, any skin color,” says Dr. Lindsey Hall, a dermatologist who volunteers for Lauren Savoy Olinde Foundation, a Baton Rouge nonprofit focused on skin cancer education.
Named for a young Baton Rouge woman who died from melanoma, the LSO Foundation sponsors Saturday’s annual Hat Run 5-kilometer run and walk, which offers skin cancer screenings from dermatologists and raises awareness of the disease.
It was a representative from the LSO Foundation whose presentation convinced Wiggins to see a doctor about the spot on her back.
She was lucky. Doctors caught her melanoma early, when it looked like a blistering mole.
Wiggins underwent surgery to remove skin tissue at the melanoma, and doctors also removed one of her lymph nodes, where the cancer had spread.
Waiting for confirmation that she was cancer-free took over a week — the toughest days of Wiggins’ life.
“When you get a cancer diagnosis, things start running through your head,” she says. “Like, can I still get my degree?”
Tests revealed she was cancer-free. The 23-year-old has graduated and is now in graduate school for physical therapy. She encourages friends and family to care for their skin and visit a doctor to get checked out.
“If it’s caught early, you’re fine and good to go,” Wiggins says. “If they don’t catch it early, that story is very, very different.”
Education can help people prevent skin cancer altogether or, at least, catch it early, Hall says.
“The good thing about skin cancer is you can detect it on yourself,” says Hall, who works at The Dermatology Clinic in Baton Rouge.
At least once a month, Hall recommends looking at yourself in the mirror after stepping out of the shower or bath. Look for moles that are large, asymmetrical, dark black or evolving.
“If you see something new, that should raise your antennae that there might be something going on,” she advises.
To prevent skin cancer, Hall teaches patients to apply a golf ball-sized amount of sunscreen every two hours while in the sun and to seek shade when possible.
Hall discourages the use of tanning beds, which are not safer than the sun. Using a tanning bed can double the chances of developing melanoma, she says.
Fewer patients are using tanning beds, the dermatologist says, which may reflect new trends.
“Some people are more comfortable with paler skin,” she says. “And there are a lot of really good self-tanners and spray tans. … I don’t think it’s as trendy to be golden brown all year long, which isn’t realistic.”
Wiggins’ bout with melanoma changed her life. She shares her story often and carries sunscreen everywhere she goes.
“I know if someone I am close to gets sunburned, I get kind of mad,” Wiggins says. “They know what I went through, and they know skin cancer is real and a risk, and you can prevent it based on your behavior.”