Yvette Ellerbe, 56, understands the importance of wearing sun protection.
In 2004 at the age of 39, Ellerbe was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma – a condition she still worries about to this day.
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, with an estimated 3.6 million cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. This type of cancer is thought to be caused by long-time exposure to UV radiation.
When thinking back on her first cancer diagnosis, the only word that comes to mind is fear.
“My mother had previously been diagnosed with breast cancer, my father-in-law was diagnosed with bladder cancer, so my immediate reaction was 100% fear,” Ellerbe said.
It all started with what she thought was a wart on her nose. But with two young children at the time, she didn’t make time to see a doctor until she noticed the growth was changing in size and color. After a biopsy, she was given the news that it was cancer.
“I kept putting it on the back burner. All my focus at the time went to my young children, but when we noticed it was changing in size, we knew I had to go in and get it checked out,” she said.
Ellerbe, a Florida native, grew up around the water and used to spend her summer days by the lake or laying on the beach lathered up in baby oil to help her tan. “I spent my weekends and summers by the water. My mom always told me I was going to pay for it later. But as a teenager, you don’t really listen and it turns out she was right,” she said.
Using baby oil to tan while out in the sun might help create a long-lasting tan, but it does nothing for protecting the skin.
“Baby oil acts as a photo-reflector and intensifies the sun’s UVA and UVB effects on the skin,” said Megan Rogge, MD, assistant professor of dermatology with McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). “This is not a safe or healthy way to treat the skin. I do not recommend using any accelerators like baby oil to tan.”
Since her first diagnosis, Ellerbe has had cancerous and pre-cancerous spots removed from her nose, face, chest, hands, elbow, leg, and arm. The cancer on her arm was so deep that she has nerve damage from the removal, and is no longer able to get blood drawn from that arm.
Since seeing Rogge, a dermatologist with UT Physicians, she has not had any basal cell carcinomas. But as a precaution, Rogge has taken more than 5 biopsies on skin growths that looked unusual.
“If someone has had a lot of skin cancers, we see them every three to six months. We examine all of their skin for anything that looks abnormal. Skin cancers may be painful, non-healing, or slow-growing. We look for moles that have abnormal shape, color, or pattern,” Rogge said.
For the last 17 years, Ellerbe has felt fear each time a cancer spot is found.
“Because I have since lost my mother to cancer and my husband has lost both of his parents to cancer, I still experience the same feelings each time I am told a new spot on my body is cancerous. But because we find these areas extremely early, I simply get them removed and taken care of so they do not spread,” she said.
The best way to prevent skin cancer like basal cell carcinoma is to protect your skin from the sun. Rogge says wearing sunscreen, and reapplying it as needed is the best way to be protected.
“There are so many different kinds of sunscreens out there. From gels to lotions to creams to sprays, you can find a formulation that works for you. Sometimes people aren’t motivated by risk of skin cancer to protect themselves from the sun. What I say to that is the sun causes photo aging of the skin. You may think a tan looks good now, but you may eventually get sun spots, wrinkles and lose collagen in your skin, causing sagging that you won’t like down the road, so protect your skin now. You won’t get a second chance once the damage is done,” said Rogge.
Now, when spending time outdoors, Ellerbe is more cautious than ever.
“I don’t see an end in sight for my skin cancer. I have had so much damage to my face and body that I know there will be more spots down the road. I deal with it as they come and I make sure to lather up on sunscreen, and wear protective clothing under an umbrella when I am outside,” she said. “You don’t have to give up what you love doing. My husband and I love going to the beach. It is where we met and what we are used to doing. But I take all precautions to protect myself. When I see people out in the sun with no protection, I just cringe because I am thinking, you have no idea what you are in store for. You may not experience it now but later on, you are going to pay for it.”
For more information about skin care concerns or to schedule an appointment, visit the UT Physicians dermatology clinic.
For media inquiries, call 713-500-3030.