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Sat, Sep

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  by Neil Mullally, Michigan Correspondent

The news of Frank McCourt’s death from metastatic melanoma was especially poignant for us in Muskegon, Michigan.  He came to Muskegon for a public reading and to talk at the Frauenthal Theater as part of our community’s fall Humanities Festival.  The legendary author drew us in with his  humanity, his humility, and his quick dry wit.   
Frank McCourt died from metastatic melanoma, also called malignant melanoma. Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and one of the most lethal of all cancers.  Death often follows diagnosis in a matter of months, as happened with Frank McCourt.  Those of us of Irish heritage must be especially vigilant against melanoma, because there is a significantly higher occurrence of melanoma among fair-skinned descendants of Northern European ancestors, and people of Irish descent have one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world.
In the U.S. our government does a good job of warning us to protect ourselves from the uv rays of the sun by reducing our exposure time in the sun, by wearing hats and clothing, and by using sun block.  But in the U.S. we do a lousy job of getting out an equally important message -  regularly check our skin moles!  Melanoma takes place when a mole turns malignant and grows like a little root down into the skin.  If it grows deep enough its cancerous cells will be carried to multiple organs throughout the body.  But if the malignant mole is caught early enough, it can be removed safely.  All too often, a melanoma victim has no idea that a mole has turned cancerous because we have not been educated about the seriousness of what may be happening when a mole changes or “looks different” from the way it had been.
The emphasis on sun protection can be misleading because, as mentioned above, melanoma is most prevalent among Northern European populations and their descendants, where sun bathing and  skin  exposure  to  the  sun  is  less than in other climates.
Among the four siblings in my family (my three brothers and myself), two of us have had melanoma, and one of us  died from it.
That experience has taught us some valuable lessons to pass on. Although a family history of cancer can be an indicator, in our family
there is no history of cancer in either of our parents’ families.  So an absence of family history is not a safety factor to rely upon.
A cancerous mole can be anywhere on the body, and not necessarily  where the mole has been exposed to the sun.  The mole
that killed  my brother was up under his arm pit and he had not noticed when it changed.  A malignant mole can be anywhere  -  on the
scalp, on a foot, on a leg, etc. The key is that if a mole changes in any way, such as shape, size, color, or if it bleeds or raises up,  it
should be checked as soon as possible by a dermatologist.  On the internet can be found pictures of what malignant moles can look like.
But do not be misled by those.  If you have a mole that changes, no matter how slight you think the change is, get it checked right away.
One helpful approach is to establish your own baseline by looking at your moles regularly. Also have someone else look you over be-
cause you may have moles on your back and other areas that you cannot easily see.  Some take pictures so that they don’t forget what
their moles looked like originally when they are trying to decide if a mole has changed later.  
To sum up, check your moles regularly, and see a dermatologist if a mole changes in any way.  Due our Irish ancestry, we cannot take any chances with melanoma.

September 2017

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