- By Ian Roth
How a perceptive friend saved a life
John Murphy had grown accustomed to seeing the age spot on his forehead. He even had a dermatologist look at it in the past. So he was surprised when a friend and work colleague noticed it.
"After lunch she very quietly, very respectfully said to me, 'John, I think that age spot on your face has changed,'" Murphy says. "And I said, 'Do you really think so?' And she said, 'Yeah, it's a little darker and a little bigger. If I were you, I'd call Dermatology.'"
Murphy immediately made an appointment to have the spot checked to see if it could be skin cancer.
A few days later, he was sitting at his desk at work at Mayo Clinic when he got the biopsy results: It was malignant melanoma, the most dangerous kind of skin cancer.
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"I just sort of was stunned," he says.
Within days, Murphy went in for what is called a Mohs surgery to have it removed.
"Now, Mohs surgery is interesting because because it's an outpatient surgery under local anesthetic, and what they do with that is they actually go in and they try to find clean margins," Murphy says.
"So it's a process of taking the specimen, looking at the specimen to see if it's cancerous – and it takes a while with staining. And, then, if not, they they go back in and they do a little bit more, and they do a little bit more."
Dr. Cathy Newman, Murphy's dermatologist at Mayo Clinic, says melanoma is generally treated surgically. In special circumstances, Mohs surgery is used for more precise removal – often when a melanoma is on the face. Mohs surgery also is used to remove melanomas with ill-defined margins, to make sure all of it is removed.
Weeks later, Murphy had another malignant spot removed.
Dr. Newman says Murphy was lucky he caught his melanomas when he did.
"Most melanomas are caught very early and are very, very easily treatable," she says. "It's the melanomas that become nodules rapidly, start bleeding or ... get very thick [that are problematic]. The melanoma prognosis is dependent on how thick the lesion is. So if you have a thin lesion and you catch it early, it is very, very treatable."
But Murphy also knows what could happen when someone doesn't notice the signs of a melanoma.
"I was shocked," he says. "When I did some research, it really showed that it was an aggressive type of cancer. It could be – get into your lymph nodes and into your blood system, and then go throughout your body and cause some major problems. So, you know, a lot of times people think: 'Oh, it's just skin cancer. It's surface.' But it can be invasive, and ... it can really, really hurt you."
It's why he's so thankful his friend was paying attention to changes in his age spot, and wasn't afraid to say something.
"Well, I think you look in the mirror every day, and you see things every day. And those subtle changes aren't as apparent, and so that's why it is so nice to rely on somebody else or to have somebody else say something to you," Murphy says.
And since melanoma is far more common than most people realize ...
"... there are at least 1 million Americans living with melanoma at this time, or [have] a history of melanoma," Dr. Newman says.
She says it's important for everyone to say something like Murphy's friend did.
"It's difficult to know when to intervene in other people's lives," Dr. Newman says. "But if you see something that really looks – and, you know, like it's got very irregular borders or, you know, not uniform color, again, like I said, you could just maybe gently say, 'Have you had someone look at that maybe?'"
Because, in his case, Murphy says his perceptive friend likely saved his life.
"So when I talked to my friend and thanked her for saying something, it really was out of a sense of gratitude and ... just very thankful to her that she actually took the ... initiative to ... say this to me," he says. "So that does – it does really warm my heart.