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After Her Experience With Skin Cancer, Beth Thompson Is Determined to Help Others

Most skin cancers, including melanoma, are not inherited risks

In February 2020, Beth Thompson was enjoying the warm Florida temperatures in the backyard pool at her mother’s home. Her stepfather noticed a mole bleeding on the back of Thompson’s left arm and suggested she get it checked. This moment in time would be the start of a life-changing journey.

“It was right around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says the 58-year-old behavioral health nurse from Wind Gap, Pa. “I didn’t take it too seriously at first and figured if it got any worse, I’d have it checked.”

Season of change

That June, Thompson had her annual checkup with her primary care physician, which had to be a video visit because of COVID restrictions. Upon seeing the mole via video, the physician referred her to a dermatologist.

“That led to a biopsy, and two weeks later I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma,” Thompson says. “I thought I was going to die.”

Thompson was referred to surgical oncologist Aaron Blackham, MD, with Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute, who explained what would occur when the melanoma was removed. Her surgery took place on July 30, 2020.

“Her biopsy showed early stage melanoma,” Dr. Blackham says. “The main treatment is to remove the melanoma with wide margins of normal skin. She also had a sentinel lymph node biopsy to test if her melanoma had spread to nearby lymph nodes. Fortunately, her lymph nodes were negative for melanoma and no additional treatment was necessary.”

Importance of vigilance

Following the surgery, Thompson was under close surveillance for possible recurrence of melanoma. In the first seven months, her dermatologist removed a melanoma in situ (cells that will advance to melanoma if untreated) from her right thigh, and later a mole from her back as a precautionary measure. Thankfully, since those discoveries she has remained clear of potential problems for more than two years.

“Most often it occurs because of the cumulative effect of sun damage over a lifetime. If you have a suspicious mole like Beth’s, get it checked as soon as possible.” - Aaron Blackham, MD

But that wasn’t the end of Thompson’s journey.

“I got close to two friends, one in a melanoma support group and another a co-worker, who both had a recurrence of melanoma and died within four days of each other,” Thompson says. “They both were surprised about how quickly the cancer spread to so many places of the body.”

Mission to educate

Thompson decided to make it her mission to get the word out about the dangers of skin cancer.

“People don’t realize how important it is to get your skin checked if you spend significant time in the sun,” Thompson says. “You have to be vigilant. Maybe you’ll wear sunblock and UPF [ultraviolet protection factor] clothing such as a long-sleeve shirt while hiking, but what about when you’re walking on the street? We usually don’t think about it then.” 

Thompson encouraged the same vigilance with tanning beds. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, several countries have banned commercial tanning bed use by minors because of the possibility of skin cancer. The same ban exists in 44 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

“Prevention is the key,” Dr. Blackham says. “We’re learning more and more about how damaging UV [ultraviolet] light is, how important it is to avoid midday sun [10 a.m. to 2 p.m.] and to use sunblock liberally. Many people don’t reapply sunblock often enough.”

If you develop a spot on your skin, Dr. Blackham recommends monitoring it closely following the ABCDEs of melanoma.

“Most skin cancers are not hereditary,” Dr. Blackham says. “Most often it occurs because of the cumulative effect of sun damage over a lifetime. If you have a suspicious mole like Beth’s, get it checked as soon as possible.”

Skin Cancer

Skin Cancer

If you have moles consistent with the ABCDEs (signs) of skin cancer, Lehigh Valley Cancer Institute can help. Our team includes one of the few skin cancer diagnosis specialists in the region. And we offer the latest treatments, including Mohs surgery, for effective care that minimizes scarring.

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