Transplant patients are given drugs to suppress their immune system so that it will not attack and reject the donated organ. Unfortunately, immune-suppressed people, including recipients of kidneys and other organs, have a much higher risk of skin cancers than people in the general population. And yet studies show that only about one in four transplant recipients are aware that they are at increased risk for developing skin cancer.
Let’s be honest, most of us don’t like going to the doctor. At 29-years-old, it’s still as intimidating as it was when I was a kid, except now no lollipop…in its place: a huge medical bill.
I only went to the doctor, in my case, a dermatologist specializing in transplant recipients, because I had to after I noticed a small mark on my lower back. Roughly the size of a pencil eraser, it resembled a flesh colored mole, but was surrounded by a ring of dark brown/black. I panicked. How long had this spot been there? Do I feel any different recently? Why is it THAT color? I immediately went on Google Images to search skin cancer/melanomas. I spent an hour trying to compare the mark on my back to images on Google. I asked medical school friends of mine what they thought. I sheepishly asked my parents to look at my back.
When I was in high school, my father (no history of kidney disease) had a skin melanoma which rapidly spread, and due to lack of speedy medical attention, resulted in him having surgery which removed a chunk of his right arm that was the diameter of a golf ball. Had it spread to his lymph nodes, he would’ve only had months to live. I lost grandparents to cancer. Needless to say, I’m very cautious about my body. Nowadays, it seems everyone has in some way, shape or form been affected by “the C word.”
As a kidney transplant recipient, my likelihood of developing cancer is increased due to the daily pills I take to combat organ rejection.
The week I noticed my spot, I had a routine kidney transplant clinic visit. I’m currently 15 months post-transplant and my surgeon had previously recommended I have a skin cancer screening. I hadn’t done it yet so my surgeon referred me to a dermatologist affiliated with my hospital. The same day I made my call to the office, a friend lost his father to a battle with skin cancer which had spread to multiple organs. Sadly, the dermatologist’s first available date was weeks away. I panicked, fearing my procrastination could have led to a situation similar to my father’s. I pleaded for an earlier date until they were able to squeeze me in.
As I arrived at the office, I kept thinking, “I wear sunscreen all the time, this is ridiculous.” As a transplant recipient, I do my best to avoid exposure to the suns damaging rays. As I glanced around the waiting room which was filled to capacity, I wondered how many other individuals were as anxious as me. In the exam room the nurse and I reviewed my medical history and that of my parents and grandparents, especially as it related to cancer. I explained that my main concern was the mark on my back. When the doctor arrived, he said a few congratulatory words about my transplant and began his full body inspection with my lower back. Using what looked like a portable illuminated magnifying glass, he hovered over the spot and informed me it was normal. He used some ridiculously long medical term to label it. After hours of Google Image convincing me otherwise, I did not have a melanoma.
The checkup continued with my face, chest, arms, hands, legs and feet. The doctor even ran his portable device through my hair, closely examining my scalp. He did an excellent job explaining other odd looking, yet normal, freckles, moles and other markings on my body. I mentioned to him I had a wart on my right hand. I had never had any warts on my body before and it was explained to me my immunosuppression was likely the culprit. A quick blast of liquid nitrogen and it was taken care of.
The best part of the visit was the peace of mind I received afterward. I was healthy. I was skin cancer free.
I won’t make the mistake my father did. I will get regular checkups, use my dermatologist
provided coupons to buy UV protective clothing for summer and follow sun safety tips, some of which are linked below.
If you are a transplant recipient, PLEASE speak with your doctor today about a skin cancer
screening, even if you don’t notice anything you deem “out of the ordinary” on your body.
If detected early, skin cancer can often be easily treated. PLEASE take preventative action before it’s too late.
Deadly Skin Cancers Have Doubled on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website
Skin Cancers in Transplant Patients on Skin Cancer Foundation website
Protect the Skin You’re In on National Kidney Foundation website