Courtesy Sara Langill
Sara Langill grew up in sunny San Diego, CA. If she wasn’t playing volleyball, it was tennis; if it wasn’t tennis, she was running. Always outside, 33-year-old Langill says she knew she should have protected her skin from the sun better. “I’m pretty fair and I have light eyes. I have lots of moles and skin cancer runs in both sides of my family. I should have paid attention to these things back then, but I didn’t.” But when skin cancer did strike, she hadn’t the faintest clue how much danger she was in.
With an active lifestyle she carried on into adulthood, Langill spent all her free time outdoors. “If I didn’t come into work with a sunburn, then it hadn’t been a normal weekend for me,” she recalls. After playing volleyball one afternoon, she noticed the inside of her right leg was sore. “It felt like a bubble or a grape, and it wasn’t on my other leg but I didn’t think too much of it.” Her friend felt the lump and thought it might be a hernia and encouraged her to get it checked out.
Langill went to her primary care doctor, who ordered an ultrasound. The scan showed a mass in her lymph nodes. That was ominous—a biopsy was next. “When they did the biopsy, my doctor called me to set up an appointment to get results. I knew that couldn’t have been a good sign.” Moles are a silent sign of skin cancer; don’t miss these other signs you shouldn’t ignore.
The biopsy was positive for stage 3b melanoma. Though Langill didn’t know it, melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. She assumed treatment would be fairly easy, but she quickly learned otherwise. “When they began talking about surgery, skin grafts, and lymph node removal, I realized then that this would not be a typical trip to the dermatologist.” Langill only fully understood the severity of her cancer after researching it: “Melanoma is so serious, and once it’s spread it’s very different. If it’s in the lymph nodes, then it’s in your bloodstream and microscopic, and it can go anywhere. It’s a lifetime of follow-up for me now; it’s never going to be cured.”
Courtesy Sara Langill
More than 95,000 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma this year. Rates have skyrocketed among younger people—it’s the most common cancer for those ages 25 to 29. Risk factors include sun exposure, tanning beds, a family history, and light hair and skin. Treatment options for melanoma include surgery, radiation, immunotherapy, clinical trials, targeted therapy, and chemotherapy. Here are some more facts everyone should know about skin cancer.
After having surgery to remove the tumor and surrounding lymph nodes, Langill began an immunotherapy treatment as part of a clinical trial at the University of California, San Diego. Doctors determined that the tumor in her lymph nodes originated from a small, new mole (which she had already made an appointment to have checked out).
Langill had to stop her treatment at four months—the side effects were overwhelming—but her body is now clear of the cancer. But she and her doctors remain vigilant: “I had scans every three months for the first two years, and follow-up CT scans and MRIs. I get a PET scan once a year.” Langill says she now focuses on keeping her body and immune system strong. “It’s changed everything for me—the way I eat, my lifestyle. Melanoma has a level of guilt associated with it because it’s preventable. I know now that sunscreen isn’t a miracle worker—it’s not the same as staying in the shade or wearing SPF clothing. It’s so easy now to put up a beach umbrella, or just not go out in the middle of the day anymore.” Putting too much trust in sunscreen contributed to Langill’s trouble—here are the other skin cancer myths to stop believing.
Recently, Langill has discovered a passion for sharing her story and educating others about melanoma prevention. “So many people have responded in a genuine way and [been] saying they’re going to get checked. I’m not doing anyone a service by not talking, or keeping this to myself. I want to motivate others to be proactive about preventing it, so they don’t have to experience this too.” You can find a free skin cancer screening in your area by visiting SPOTskincancer.org; you may want to do this if you have any of these surprising risk factors for skin cancer.