The Dirty Dozen

About seven years ago, a small brown dot appeared on my right cheek. I had a lot of moles on my body and my mom always called them beauty spots, so I wasn’t worried about it. I had also been assured by my doctor and other health practitioners, that it was nothing. “It’s flat and brown,” they said.  Even though over the years it got larger and darker, I ignored it. A couple of nurse friends had urged me to get it checked, but I would quickly dismiss their concerns. During a visit with my new GP on a completely unrelated matter, she asked if I’d ever had the mole checked. “Not formally,” I said. She sent me to a dermatologist. When I saw him, he said, “How could your family and friends have let you walk around with that on your face for so long? Sit down, it’s coming off right now.” The results of the biopsy came back a week later and it was melanoma. I then had to see a specialized surgeon who would dig a little deeper and make sure all the cancerous cells were gone.

The surgery was more extensive than anticipated. I was in and out of the operating room for ten hours. Each time they cut part of my face away, then bandaged me up and sat me back in the waiting room. They would then check the tissue under a microscope for cancer cells. You can’t leave until you have clear margins. By the end of the day, I was the last one in the waiting room. I also had a huge hole in my face: the incision ran from the corner of my eye to my chin and from my eye across the face to my hairline. Fortunately I had a brilliant surgeon who was not only specialized in this type of micrographic skin cancer surgery, but he was also a plastic surgeon. So even though at first I looked like a character from Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery, it healed beautifully. You have to look very closely now to see the scars. No other treatment was required. I now have a five percent chance of getting skin cancer again, the same as the general population. I wear a lot of hats. I also look ten years younger on one side!

I had plenty of sun exposure as a child, the most likely cause of the cancer. We lived at the beach during the summer and lathered ourselves in baby oil. But I also wonder about the chemicals I have put on my skin over the years, the beauty products, even the sunscreen, of which I have always been cautious. Not to mention the chemicals in the environment seeping into my pores on a daily basis, or the ones I might be ingesting through food.

I did a lot of research after my surgery, on cosmetics and skin products. I found a web site called Skin Deep, a cosmetics database developed by the Environmental Working Group out of the US. I’d been using mostly “natural products” for years. Even though the shampoos make my head itchy, when I plugged the various products in to see how they rated, I was shocked to find that they were toxic. Clearly, I couldn’t trust my health food store to be screening the products. Almost anything with a scent was dangerous, whether it was natural or not. Toothpaste, shampoo, lotions, mascara, lipstick, all the stuff we rub into our skin, foam up on our heads, spray on our bodies, put in our mouth on a daily basis, could be causing cancer or interfering with our hormonal and endocrine systems.

The Suzuki Foundation has just launched their Dirty Dozen campaign, identifying the top twelve most dangerous chemical ingredients found in cosmetics and beauty care products. The web site is full of very helpful information.

Check your labels and your moles.

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