Whether or not your skin cancer was responsive to treatment or is still ongoing, it’s natural to be concerned about recurrence (return of the cancer following treatment). While exact statistics can vary place to place, the overall trend is that those who have had skin cancer, both melanoma and non-melanoma types, are at a higher risk for developing skin cancer again. For this reason, it’s crucial for individuals with skin cancer to monitor for recurrence and work closely with their provider. While some with skin cancer may need chemotherapy and radiation throughout the rest of their lives, leading them to constantly be around their healthcare team, others may have responded to treatment and now may be more “on their own” when it comes to being proactive. Regardless of your specific situation, there are some common themes when it comes to handling the threat of recurrence.
Monitoring for recurrence
It is so important to perform regular self-examinations of your skin. There are simple guides that can walk you through the self-examination process, or your healthcare provider should have information on hand to give you. Sometimes self-examinations require mirrors to monitor hard to see locations, and you can also enlist the help of a partner. Taking pictures of potentially concerning spots can help track any changes that may be suspicious. Self-examinations are typically done monthly for skin cancer survivors but may be adjusted based on your provider’s instructions. Regular check-ups with your doctor are also necessary when it comes to monitoring for recurrence. Your provider will help you set a specific schedule, which may vary from person to person, or type of skin cancer. Additional tests may be ordered at pre-determined intervals, like scans of lymph nodes, blood tests, and other cancer screening methods. Whenever you do notice any new or unusual changes in your skin or any new symptoms, it’s important to seek the help of your dermatologist, general practitioner, or oncologist immediately.
Worrying about recurrence
No matter the specific type of skin cancer an individual has, worrying about recurrence is completely normal. In order to prevent this worry from getting out of control, there are steps you can take to decrease the risk of recurrence, or ensure you’ll catch potential problems early.
- Ask your physician for a survivor plan: This can include a schedule of exams and tests you may need, a list of possible side-effects or symptoms to watch for, or a diet and exercise plan. Following this plan exactly may ease anxious feelings.
- Avoid high doses of ultraviolet (UV) light, tanning beds, and direct sunlight.
- Wear sunscreen daily, especially when outside.
- Wear hats and appropriate clothing to shield from the sun.
Although there is no way to predict who will have skin cancer recurrence, those who have eczema, have been previously exposed to high levels of UV light or tanning beds or had original carcinomas that were larger than 2 centimeters and/or located several layers deep into the skin are typically at a higher risk.
As with any stressor or concern, even the best attempts to calm anxiety may not be 100% effective, and that’s completely okay. Sometimes, the constant worry of recurrence can prove to be a larger burden to bear than anticipated, and outside reinforcements may be necessary. This can mean opening up about this anxiety to friends and family members, and seeking their support. Other times, it may be beneficial to join a support group, or online community, like ours, to discuss with others going through the same emotions. Additionally, anxiety or depression medications may be appropriate and prescribed by your physician. It is also common to seek the support of a specialist, such as a psychiatrist or a therapist, who can help you work through, and manage these very real and common feelings. Whoever you include in your emotional support system is completely up to you, and should be focused on bringing you up, and calming your fears.