What To Learn From A Scientist's Frightening Diagnosis
- Jeff Karp, 46, a medical professor and biomedical engineer, had barely thought about the small red mark on his face. He was about to leave his doctor’s office when he brought it. A test revealed it was basal cell carcinoma, the most commonly found cancer.
- While frightening, basal cell carcinoma is easily treatable if it’s caught early. In Karp’s case, surgery wasn’t even needed – he simply had to apply a cream to the blemish for six weeks. However, that cream came with some upsetting side effects.
- There are simple steps to take to avoid getting skin cancer. Those include applying sunscreen regularly, covering your skin and eyes when out in the sun and avoiding tanning beds.
Jeff Karp, a 46-year-old professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was just about to leave his doctor’s office, going so far as to put his mask back on, when he decided to ask about a small, red blemish on his cheek. It had been there for a year or two, but Karp had written it off as something that came with getting older.Read More
When the results from a biopsy returned, it showed Karp had basal cell carcinoma, the most frequently occurring of all cancers, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Very Common And Very Treatable
Though extremely common, basal cell carcinoma is easily treatable when detected early, as it grows slowly.
The cancer starts in cells in the top layer of skin which can be damaged by ultraviolet rays from the sun. The mutations caused by those rays can cause the cells to grow uncontrollably.
The danger only comes once the cancer starts to spread and can injure nearby tissue like nerves and blood vessels, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Karp said he understands that he put himself at risk when he was younger, when he would play multiple rounds of golf in a day, exposing himself to lots of sunlight without consistently applying and reapplying sunscreen.
“The Doorknob Phenomenon”
Karp’s case is a great example of what doctors call the “doorknob phenomenon,” where a patient is just about to leave their doctor’s office when they bring up something that ends up being important.
Treatment for basal cell carcinoma can occasionally require surgery but in Karp’s case, the cancerous cells were close enough to the surface that his doctor instead recommended a six-week regimen of Aldara, a cream used to treat skin growths.
Counterintuitively, the cream actually made the blemish on his skin worse. Karp tracked the progress of the treatment with a series of photos that show the red mark growing substantially until on the forty-second day it resembled a sore that took up most of his right cheek. It often hurt and sometimes oozed blood to the point he had to sleep with a towel on his pillow.
“It’s very shocking,” Karp acknowledged.
Which Sunscreen Should I Use To Avoid Skin Cancer?
A Mental Health Challenge
While Karp’s skin is expected to return to normal, during the treatment he acknowledged experiencing negative effects to his mental health. He worried his face could frighten children and avoided making eye contact with other people for fear of making them uncomfortable.
“When it got to the last couple weeks of the treatment, I debated whether I should stop it because I was just getting really down about it,” he said. “Now, I’m in this very positive space because the treatment is over. I’m clearly on the road to recovery, and I’m not as self-conscious about it.”
As a scientist himself, Karp understood well how the Aldara worked to combat the cancer.
“This cream is actually topical immunotherapy. It activates the local immune system in a very major way so that your immune system can then recognize the cancer cells and kill them,” he said. “But in the process of activating the immune system, there’s a lot of inflammation that is caused, and what’s interesting is that inflammation also allows the cream, the therapeutic agent, to get in even deeper because your skin is more permeable because now it’s inflamed.”
Now, Karp is hoping to influence others so they can avoid the ordeal he went through. He’s begun wearing sunscreen religiously, wearing a wide brimmed hat and uses an umbrella at outdoor events. In a recent LinkedIn post, he encouraged others to wear sunscreen and see their doctors regularly, especially if they notice something out of the ordinary.
“Hoping you can learn from my apathy to be motivated to protect yourself and more frequently apply sunscreen!,” he wrote. “And schedule regular appointments with your dermatologist – you never know what might be found!”
Wise Words From Hugh Jackman
Karp is in good company when it comes to battling basal cell carcinoma. X-Men actor Hugh Jackman, 53, is likely the best known person to have fought the disease and has become a huge advocate for protecting yourself by wearing sunscreen. He was first diagnosed with skin cancer in 2013, and he’s battled the disease six times. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), 5.4 million basal and squamous cell skin cancers are diagnosed each year in the U.S. Jackman’s most recent battle with basal cell carcinoma was in 2017.
How To Protect Yourself Against Skin Cancer
As Jackman urges his fans to do – protecting your skin by wearing sunscreen and getting skin checks is so important. Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer in the U.S., and you can protect yourself and lower your skin cancer risk by taking prevention steps.
Top 5 Ways to Protect Your Skin From Skin Cancer
In an earlier interview, dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman outlines five easy ways to protect your skin, and lower your skin cancer risk. She tells us:
- Avoid sun during peak hours. This means from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It doesn’t mean you should never go outside during the middle of the day, but make sure you’re protected when you do venture outdoors.
- Cover your skin and eyes. A wide brim hat and sun glasses will protect your face, the top of your head, your ears, and the delicate skin around your eyes.
- Wear an SPF of 30 or higher. Plenty of facial moisturizers have SPF built into them. Reapply often.
- Get an annual skin check. You can check your own skin for anything that looks out of the ordinary, but you should still get a yearly check to make sure you didn’t miss anything. If you do happen to notice anything out of the ordinary in between checks, schedule an appointment to talk to your doctor about it ASAP — it is always worth it to make sure.
- Avoid tanning beds. “There’s absolutely no benefit to going to a tanning bed,” Dr. Engelman says.