A Racing Legend and Skin Cancer Survivor
- NASCAR and IndyCar racer Jimmie Johnson is working towards an Indy 500 debut in 2022. He’s known for his racing prowess, but did you know he is also a skin cancer survivor?
- Johnson was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma in 2017. He had surgery to remove a sizable chunk from his right shoulder and ended up with about 22 stitches.
- Now Johnson urges people, especially children, to wear sunscreen. Wearing at least SPF 30 sunscreen and making sure to reapply every two hours or after excessive sweating or swimming is one way to help prevent skin cancer.
Most recently, Johnson placed 22nd at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Sunday. But even though the placing wasn’t his best, Johnson is proud of the improvements he’s made in recent races and looking forward to testing the possibilty of a 2022 INDY 500 attempt – something the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has never done.Read More
Johnson was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma (BCC) in January 2017 when he was 41. His diagnosis came after his doctor found “a mole that was kind of changing shape.” After a biopsy, Johnson’s skin cancer was confirmed, but it had not spread.
“[BCC] doesn’t spread. It doesn’t go to the glands,” Johnson told the AP. “They just have to dig it out and you’re good to go. Once I understood that, my reaction to the ‘C’ word calmed down.”
And although it’s not necessarily true that BCC doesn’t spread, it is very rare for it to do so. For treatment, Johnson had surgery to remove the spot from his right shoulder. It required about 22 stitches, but he was out of the hospital door in four hours. Being an intense athlete, Johnson knew his recovery would not look exactly like doctors may have wanted, but he successfully recovered and returned to the track just days later.
“When I explained to them I couldn’t be sweat free or activity free for as long as they hoped for recovery, it just got tricky on when I could time it,” he said. “I didn’t want to wait until the end of the season.”
Thankfully, he’s still cancer free and doing what he loves. And just maybe, we’ll be able to cheer for the racing legend at the INDY 500 next year.
Understanding Skin Cancer
The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that over 5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year, making it the most common cancer in the United States.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Dendy Engelman from MDCS Dermatology in New York shared the top five things you can do to avoid skin cancer:
- Avoid sun during peak hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m..
- Wear a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses to protect the tops of our heads, the tops of our ears and the delicate area around the eye.
- Wear at least SPF 30 sunscreen and make sure to reapply every two hours or after excessive sweating or swimming.
- Have yearly skin checks (with a professional) because it’s difficult to evaluate areas all over the body.
- Avoid tanning beds. There are no “good” tanning beds, and they can significantly increase your risk of melanoma.
No matter how vigilant you are about decreasing your risk for skin cancer, its important to still prioritize routine checkups with your dermatologist and always be on the lookout for any skin changes in between visits.
What is Basal Cell Carcinoma?
The three main types of skin cancer are melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma (BCC). Basal cell carcinoma – the type of cancer Jimmie Johnson had – is the most common form of skin cancer, and develops when basal cells, one of three main types of cells in the top layer of the skin, grow abnormally or uncontrollably.
One distinguishing factor of this type of skin cancer is that it tends to grow more slowly resulting in minimal damage and making it generally curable when caught and treated early. The tricky thing, however, is that BCC can often be overlooked as a pimple or skin tag. They may appear as raised areas on the skin with pale, pink or red-ish colors, and they may also have abnormal blood vessels. No matter what, if you have a spot on your skin that seems abnormal or questionable, you should consult your doctor because BCC can look very different from person to person.
Generally speaking, BCC occurs when DNA damage from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or indoor tanning triggers changes in basal cells. Because it most often develops on areas of the skin that are exposed to sun, it’s crucial to protect yourself from the sun in any way that you can.
The Importance of Sunscreen
One of the best ways to protect yourself from the sun, and skin cancer, is to regularly apply sunscreen – something Jimmie Johnson spoke about after his skin cancer treatment. Growing up in Southern California, Johnson spent most of his time outdoors when he wasn’t racing motorcycles.
“I could vividly remember a lot of sunburns,” Johnson told the AP. “That sun exposure on a mole, there’s just consequences.”
But since his surgery, Johnson has had a new appreciation for sunscreen. In a tweet immediately following his BCC removal, Johnson urged kids to think about how they’re protecting their skin.
“Wear sunblock kids,” he wrote. “I’ve spent the morning on a table having Basal Cell Carcinoma cut out of my shoulder.”
Many people commit to using sunscreen every day, but it’s important to note that choosing the right product can be just as important as consistency. Dr. Cecilia Larocca, a dermatologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, recommends you use sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and reapply it every two hours. Your sunscreen should also be broad spectrum, says Dr. Larocca, meaning it covers both UVB and UVA rays.
Manhattan dermatologist Dr. Snehal Amin tells SurvivorNet that while brand name is not very important, considering the activities you’ll be doing while wearing the sunscreen and paying attention to the ingredients and feel of the sunscreen can make a difference.
“My recommendation is really focus on the ingredients rather than the brands,” Dr. Amin says. “If you like the way the brand feels on your skin, if you like the purpose of the brand – for instance, sport versus daily use or daytime use versus a short burst of activity use – I think those are more important factors than actual brands.”