While Tucsonans often brag about enjoying so many sunny days a year, all that sunshine can take a toll, sometimes in the form of skin cancer.
The Arizona Cancer Center’s Skin Cancer Institute aims to prevent and cure skin cancer by increasing awareness about sun safety and skin cancer detection. In addition to running community outreach programs, the SCI provides enhanced education and training for skin cancer patients and high-risk individuals through a patient education program.
“That makes all the difference in the world,” said Clara Curiel, MD, director of the Cancer Center’s Pigmented Lesion Clinic and co-director of the Cutaneous Oncology Program. “I believe it is an incredible service we provide to the patients.”
Patients with a family history of melanoma, personal history of any type of skin cancer, multiple moles and/or atypical moles have the opportunity to visit with the patient educator, Lisa Quale, who has seen more than 1,000 patients since 2006.
“It’s amazing I’ve talked to 1,000 people,” said Quale. “It’s rewarding knowing that, but it’s even more rewarding to think that each person I talk to goes out and shares information with friends and family members. In my mind, a large number of people benefit from each individual that receives patient education.”
The aim of the patient educator is to arm patients with the information they need to become their own health advocates, Quale said. She gives patients information about sunscreen, sun-safe behavior and how to do skin self-exams, and she takes time to tailor her meetings to focus on the details each individual needs most.
It’s important for Arizonans to be proactive and learn to protect their skin and check it for sun damage, particularly because most adults today didn’t grow up aware of the dangers of the sun, Quale said.
Five things everyone should know about skin cancer
- Finding skin cancer early could save your life. Get to know your skin by checking it once a month. Be on the lookout for new and/or changing spots on your body.
- Limit your time in the midday sun. Try to do most of your outdoor activities early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the sun is less intense.
- Use a good sunscreen. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Look for zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or avobenzone in the list of active ingredients.
- Don’t rely on sunscreen alone. When you’re outside, wear long sleeves, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
- Never lie out in the sun or use tanning beds. A tan is a sign that your skin is trying to protect you from the sun’s damaging rays. Both sunburn and tan cause skin cancer.
“We used to lay out,” said native Tucsonan Susan Pitt. “We put iodine and baby oil on. We lived near Himmel Park and we would walk there, swim all day and walk back. We were in the sun all that time.”
About 35 years ago, Pitt became concerned about a spot on her left leg. A newly divorced mother of four, Pitt had recently returned to the University of Arizona. Campus Health referred her to University Medical Center, where she was promptly diagnosed with melanoma. Physicians surgically removed the cancer and Pitt was able to avoid chemotherapy and radiation.
“I always have been very grateful for UMC because I would not have gotten treatment otherwise,” she said. “I was a student at the time. I didn’t have health insurance or any resources. I’m very grateful for the treatment I received.”
While her treatment was a success and she returned for regular follow-up appointments, Pitt never received education about sun safety or skin self-exams. That was typical for the time, but times have changed.
In December, Pitt made an appointment for a routine skin exam at the Arizona Cancer Center. Because she’s a melanoma survivor, she saw Dr. Curiel.
“I had heard of Dr. Curiel so it was lucky I got to come in and see her,” Pitt said. “I was just thrilled with her. She’s one of the best physicians I’ve ever seen.”
After the appointment, Pitt met with Quale and became her 1,000th patient. The meeting was very helpful, Pitt said. She learned important details about specific ingredients to look for in a sunscreen or daily moisturizer with SPF (sun protection factor) 30 or higher.
“Lisa made me more aware,” Pitt said. “It really helped me because she gave me information about several sunscreens to select from. The skin products are so much better now. I use more of it now because it feels good on my skin.”
In addition to receiving individualized sun safety education, Pitt’s recent appointment also differed from her experience 35 years ago in that she was treated at a state-of-the-art facility that she and her husband, Donald, helped make possible. The Pitt Family Medical Oncology Pavilion, which sits between the Diamond Family Multidisciplinary Oncology Pavilion and the Gumbin Family Women’s Cancer Pavilion at the Arizona Cancer Center at UMC North, honors their generous contribution.
Pitt often hears acquaintances mention when they or a loved one visits the Cancer Center and she and her husband have been pleasantly surprised to learn how many people they know benefit from treatment at the Arizona Cancer Center.
“It’s amazing how many people do come to the Cancer Center,” Pitt said. “It’s really a resource for the community. We’re glad it’s here.”