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Skin Cancer: The Lived Experience


Jennifer Sue Breszsee, Sandra Millon Underwood RN, PhD, FAAN (1)

University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, College of Nursing



When we were first given an assignment that required that I interview a cancer survivor, I wondered, “Who can I approach to do this?”  Then it dawned on me that my grandpa had skin cancer.  He does not talk about it very much so sometimes I forget that he has the disease.  Then I began to wonder what he thought about his whole experience with skin cancer and what he was doing about it.  Suddenly, I became very intrigued with finding out how he was dealing with it.

He Did Not Know

My grandfather had been seeing a dermatologist regularly for a few years when the doctor noticed precancerous skin lesions on one visit.  Grandpa told me he did not even realize the lesions were there or what they were.  His first skin cancer diagnosis was made about six years ago. 


Over the years, Grandpa had several different types of treatment.  Sometimes the doctors would freeze the areas that looked like they were turning cancerous or biopsy spots that looked more advanced. He also received creams to put on his face and arms.  When the doctors found an area that was cancerous, they would shave that area down until it was not cancerous any more.  At one point grandpa said he was working with six different doctors and it was hard to keep straight what they were all doing and prescribing!! 

So far cancerous/precancerous cells have been found on Grandpa’s chest, back, face, and temples.  Grandpa returns for check-ups about every six months unless he spots something out of the ordinary; then he goes in sooner.  Grandpa told me that his treatments can last any where from two weeks to months depending on the strength of the treatment and the goal.  Altogether, Grandpa has had two areas that were cancerous and many areas that were precancerous.  His most recent treatment course finished in August, 2004 and he is currently on no treatments.

Retiring the Straw Hat

Grandpa said the doctors were honest and matter-of-fact with him about the cancer, but also gave him hope that, as long as he followed the treatments, they would be able to help him.  They told him about each of the treatments he would receive.  My grandpa is an avid golfer who wears a straw hat.   The doctors warned him about the danger of sun exposure and told him that if he put his straw hats up to the sun and saw light coming thru, the holes were too big.  This made Grandpa a little sad because he knew he would have to retire his favorite straw hat. 


The doctors told Grandpa to put sunscreen on if he was going to be outdoors for any length of time.  The doctors also told him what abnormalities to look for at home, such as color and shape, which he now checks on a regular basis.  Grandpa told me that he also received a lot of information from friends about their own experiences with skin cancer. 

Things He Would Change If He Could

I asked my grandpa how he has changed his lifestyle now that he has skin cancer.  He said one of the first things he did was to go out and get new hats!   He also told me that he is more conscious about covering and protecting his skin when he goes outside now. 

Grandpa has cut down on the amount of golf he plays.  When he is outside doing yard work, he tries to do it early in the morning or later in the day so the sun is not so strong.  He admitted that he does not put as much sunscreen on as he probably should.

I also asked Grandpa what changes he would have made earlier in his life had he known he would get skin cancer.  Grandpa said he never had really thought about it because the cancer happened now, not then.  So he is just doing what it takes now to get rid of it.  He told me that if he were to have changed anything, it would have been to become more aware of the dangers of sun exposure and cover up more.  I also asked him what advice he would give to family and friends to prevent skin cancer.  Grandpa said he would advise people to avoid being in the sun, but if  they are going to be out in the sun, to cover up, wear hats, use sun screen, and be wise because although they may not have skin cancer when they are young, they might when they reach his age.  Grandpa also warned that each of us should check our skin regularly for any unusual spots and get them checked out right away.

Grandpa also told me that, in talking to some of his friends, many of them knew people that had skin cancer but did nothing about it so eventually died.  He told me that he knew he had cancer from the beginning. He was disappointed, but he knew there was treatment available so there was no reason to let it go untreated.  He was determined to do whatever it took to get rid of the cancer.

I also asked my grandma how she felt about grandpa having skin cancer. She said she wished he didn’t have it, but out of all the cancers it was better that he had a treatable one!!!

Lessons Learned

This class assignment gave me an opportunity to talk to my grandparents about something that I probably never would have talked to them about otherwise.  It simply never occurred to me to ask them about the details of Grandpa’s skin caner or how they were dealing with it.  I just assumed they were doing ok.  I think a lot of people think skin cancer is not serious so they don’t end up asking a lot of questions even though it may be devastating for some people and requires a substantial change in lifestyle. 

I was proud that my grandpa was not someone who felt that it was not worth the treatment. I was proud that he “took the bull by the horns” and did not get mad or upset by the fact he had skin cancer. He simply said, “Ok if that is how it is, let’s do these treatments.” 

 I am very impressed with my grandpa because I have not heard him complain once about his situation. Despite having to be careful about the sun and going through long treatments, he just does what he has to do to keep on going.  I find that awesome. Six years later, the thought of giving up does not even cross his mind.   

In closing, Grandpa and I would like to share these signs of skin cancer that should not be ignored: 

Signs that Should Not Be Ignored 


A = Asymmetry: melanoma lesions are typically asymmetrical, whereas benign moles are typically round and symmetrical.

B = Border: melanoma lesions frequently have uneven or irregular borders (i.e., ragged or notched edges), whereas benign moles have smooth, even borders.

C = Color: melanoma lesions often contain multiple shades of brown or black, whereas benign moles are usually a single shade of brown.

D = Diameter: early melanoma lesions are often more than 6 mm in diameter, whereas benign moles are usually less than 6 mm in diameter.



(1) Send correspondence to Dr. Underwood.


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