Why You Should Always Wear Sunscreen…and Not Just On Vacation

Lip Cancer_edited“What the hell is that on your lip?” my brother asks, while I’m visiting my dad in Connecticut. Truth is, I’d been wondering the same thing a couple of weeks earlier, when I spotted the white, pinhead-sized spot, smack in the center of my lower lip. My brother, a mouth cancer survivor, said I should get it looked at right away. I told him I had an appointment with a Connecticut dermatologist the following Monday.

The doctor said it didn’t look like anything to be too worried about but that if it doesn’t go away after a total of 30 days, I should have it biopsied. He said he could biopsy it right then and there but since it had only been two weeks, he wouldn’t. Plus, I was doing a TV interview that weekend for a big job and figured I would wait to see if the doctor thought it was ok. On top of that, the doctor only took cash as payment and I only had enough in my pocket to cover the $200 office visit, not the extra $150 to have it scraped and cover lab fees (though I’m sure he would have just billed me later.)

When my sister Carol saw the spot on my lip, she said that it looked like the same thing she’d had, and in the same spot, too. Hers turned out to be squamous cell carcinoma. I wasn’t feeling too good about the whole thing and was starting to get anxious, especially after a couple of weeks and it was still there. When I returned home to California, I called my dermatologist to make an appointment. It took a week to get in to see him and when I finally did, he said the same thing as my doctor in Connecticut. He gave me a full body check, scraped my spot to have it biopsied and said I’d have the results in a couple of weeks. I left $600 lighter with a nice open sore on my lip.

Ten days later, I got a call from the dermatologist’s office saying that the results had come back positive for squamous cell carcinoma. My stomach dropped and my wife, who was in the car with me, started to cry. The doctor’s office referred me to a local specialist.

It was Monday before Thanksgiving and the earliest appointment I could get was the following Monday. That made for a long week and I had a lot on my mind. I just prayed it didn’t spread and that they could get it all.

On Monday, I had Mohs surgery to remove the squamous cell carcinoma from my lip and my doctor was excellent. In fact, he teaches the procedure to fellows and residents at UCLA and performs over 1,200 of these procedures a year. I was obviously nervous as can be to get the results. The surgery can last between three and five hours as they go in and scrape one layer at a time and then test it to make sure they got all the cancer. The average patient gets two to three layers removed. I was hoping for one but I needed two.

The best part is the doctor said I was all clear and that there was a less than 1% chance that he didn’t get all the cancer. Those are odds I would take.

Mohs Lip SurgeryBelieve me when I tell you it’s no fun to get this procedure, which brings me to the point of this article. When most people travel, they’re out in the sun, whether it be at the beach or on the ski slopes. Don’t forget that the sun doesn’t have to be shining brightly for you to need sunscreen. In fact, sunscreen application should be a part of your daily routine. I used to wear SPF 15 but my doctor said I needed to up that to SPF 50. And since prevention is better than the cure, I suggest you do, too. To help prevent others from getting this nasty and far too common disease, I’m posting a few photos so you know what to look for and what it looks like after surgery.

Thank God I caught it early but it probably could have been prevented if I’d worn a stronger SPF and a lip balm with strong SPF. You can bet I will be wearing both from now on as well as a hat, instead of a visor. My doctor said he does a lot of Mohs surgeries on scalps these days since many people wear visors. I also have to go get a full body scan by my regular dermatologist every six months.

So when you travel, remember to pack and diligently apply SPF 50 sunscreen and make sure your kids are protected from head to toe, too. When I was growing up, most of my friends wore baby oil to get a tan, which is probably part of the reason my doctor performs 100 Mohs surgeries each month. Your next vacation in the sun should be lots of fun – but safe, too.

Good To Know
-Mayo Clinic Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin
-Mayo Clinic Squamous cell carcinoma Prevention
Travel Writer Nancy D Brown’s post on Basal cell carcinoma

Johnny Jet

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Why You Should Always Wear Sunscreen…and Not Just On Vacation
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About the Author

Johnny Jet
I used to be afraid to fly and at times even leave the house! I conquered my fear (long story) and now I travel to 20+ countries a year sharing my firsthand knowledge, tips and deals with friends, family and readers. Please sign up to our free newsletters and tell your friends!

32 Comments on "Why You Should Always Wear Sunscreen…and Not Just On Vacation"

  1. Sorry you’ve had to go through this. And what a great reminder to all of us to wear sunscreen, all the time. I had a spot on my nose that the dermatologist froze off. And then it came back. It would flake off, bleed, and repeat the cycle. But I was too busy traveling to have it checked. By the time I did, the basal cancer had spread, which required removal by the MOHS surgeon. You are right, it’s a scary process. Mine took 3 scrapings before the surgeon tucked extra skin from my cheek into the hole and pulled a flap from the other side of my nose to cover it. He did a great job and you can’t even see the scar unless I point it out. But it’s my constant reminder to use sunscreen because I don’t want to go through that again. Heal quickly, Johnny, and keep applying that sunscreen. And I have a great sunscreen with tint to recommend to Natalie. Just let me know.

  2. Thanks for helping to get the word out. Growing up in Southern California playing tennis with fair skin, I had my first pre-cancer in my late 20s and, even though I get checked at least every three months and have done a lot of preventive procedures, have had my share of skin cancers (mostly basel cells, with only one squamous and zero melanoma, thank goodness). I second Jenny’s advice to, if possible, use the barrier sunscreens (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) if you’re going to be out in the sun for extended amounts of time — plus a hat and protective clothing, if possible.

  3. Sorry you had to go through this, Johnny. It’s not just about sunscreen, however, it’s also whether the sunscreen we wear is safe. Until the FDA steps up regulations, it is up to us and study after study shows that most commercial well-known brands of sunscreen are not safe. The vast majority contain nano particles of anatase titanium dioxide which break down in the presence of UV and water, and generate free radicals. We all know that skin cancers are linked to damage done to the skin by free radicals and that’s why this is a cause for concern. Anyway, just want to make sure people are not wearing sunscreen they buy at their neighborhood drug stores, they are most likely not doing themselves any good and endangering themselves even more than not wearing sunscreen. Btw, eating lots of turmeric and green leafy veggies every day is the best protection from UV rays…just sayin’

  4. Here’s advice from me, a lifelong beach volleyball player, lifeguard, competitive swimmer, scuba diver and generally sun-loving person who is about to turn sixty and has no signs of skin or mouth cancer (knock wood): if you are using any sunscreen that absorbs into your skin (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide do not, and are actually better for you than the ones that do), take a quick hot shower and open your pores. Then put your sunscreen on all over, immediately. It will absorb in and protect MUCH longer than applying it to dry skin, even if you are going out to exercise and are sweating. And yes, ALWAYS use lip protection, too. And reapply all if you are out all day.

    • Thank you for the advice!

    • I am a medical researcher and I practice what I preach. I only will use “zinc oxide and titanium dioxide” tinted to see that it is spread everywhere. This is the most important combo as we prescribe this for rosaceans as well. SPF 50 always on arms, neck and don’t forget behind the ears!

  5. Wishing you a speedy recovery….thanks for sharing your story…all of us need to follow these precautions.

  6. Robert Pisaneschi | December 4, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Reply

    Thank you for the article and great advice, here’s hoping your back to 100% very soon and doing your usual great work !

  7. Kathleen Pacheco | December 4, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Reply

    Gee, that is scary! Especially since I hope to begin traveling in the next two years. I’ll definitely pack the lip balm with sunscreen, as well as the sunscreen. Hat, too. You can’t be too careful! Wishing you a speedy recovery!

  8. Thanks for sharing & spreading the word as it’s an important one, Johnny. My dad has had numerous MOHS surgeries over the past few years. Keep an eye on everything – have Natalie watch the places you cannot see. It’s amazing what little spots can turn out to be cancerous. I have been diligent about sunscreen and avoiding sunburns since this happened to my dad. Good luck – I hope you don’t have more of these ever.

  9. Wow, good reminder for me to try lib balm. I am allergic to most sunscreens and they almost put me in the hospital last time, even paba free. I try to stay out of the sun, but you can never be 100% safe.
    I say go to the White House, how often do you get the chance, and it would be a great teaching moment. Wear a tag that says “ask me about my lip” or you should see the other guy! Take care.

  10. I’m so glad you posted this. Ever since my own Mohs surgery (basal cell carcinoma on the tip of my nose), I’ve been the annoying poster child for sunscreen/hats/long sleeves. Wishing you a complete recovery.

  11. I had to have it on my scalp for the second go-round with basal cell carcinoma. Glad you are okay!

  12. Thanks for sharing, wishing you a speedy recovery!

  13. Glad you took care of it in time @Johnny. Geez…

  14. I have read every word you’ve written since the beginning or close to it, thank you for sharing the good and the bad in your life. I am sure we will all take your advice and those of your readers. If not using drug store sunscreens, do we have to speak with doctor? I am shortly going on a world cruise and would like more advice.

    • Thanks for the support. I don’t think you need to but it can’t hurt to get a body checkup by a dermatologist

  15. Linda @AsWeSawIt | December 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Reply

    I’ll echo what others have said, Johnny, and thank you for posting those photos along with your story. You have reminded us of something we often neglect. I appreciate it.

  16. Ouch! Glad you got it looked at right away, and hope it heals quickly.

  17. Glad that your doing better Johnny. I had a Melanoma removed about 10 years ago on my lower back and a Basel cell burned off my neck last year. It’s all from getting sunburned as a kid. I am an advocate for skin cancer now. I wear sunscreen everyday and a hat and try to keep covered up to reduce the risk. Whenever people ask me about the scar on my neck, I give them the talk about staying out of the sun. Here’s a tip that I just discovered lately if you love the water like me. Go to a surf shop and buy a rash guard. I bought a long sleeve and it has 50 UBV protection. All the best!

  18. Ow! Looks like that hurt! Glad that you are ok. Mohs surgery is great. Sorry you had to go through that. Best of health to you Johnny! Viva Johnny! From your Italian gal in Rockford, IL

  19. Hi Johnny, I have a few questions if you don’t mind to compare with the spot on my lip. Did you have any discomfort such as any kind of pain in that area (prior to biopsy)? Did the spot grow at all? Did the color change?

  20. Because of your post, Johnny, I got my white dot biopsied. It looked EXACTLY like yours. I thought I bit my lip. It’s been there for 8-9 months! At month 3 I was at the dermatologist for something else and decided that “it was going away” and didn’t have it frozen off. At my 2 month followup, it had not gone away so I had it frozen off. Convinced it was better, I canceled the 6 wk followup. It grew back. After finding your post, I made my appt for a biopsy. I’ll get the results next week. Thank you so much for sharing your story!!!

  21. Thanks for sharing. I had a different situation – a mole that was turning into melanoma on my lower leg. I now have a huge scar and always wear sunscreen to prevent any additional issues.

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