Barbara Beer acted fast when she saw that a mole on the inside of her left elbow had turned black.
She had a routine appointment coming up with her PCP and made a note to ask about it.
“He looked at it and said, ‘Let’s do a biopsy.’ And it immediately came back as melanoma,” Beer said.
After the diagnosis, Beer was injected with a radioactive dye to map the lymph nodes where the melanoma might have spread or was most likely to spread.
Next came surgery at Saint Vincent Hospital in Erie. Timothy Germain, M.D., director of Allegheny Health Network plastic surgery at Saint Vincent, and cancer surgeon Jennifer Saldhana, M.D., removed the tumor and checked surrounding lymph nodes for any spread.
That was two years ago. Beer has had no sign of melanoma since.
“(The doctors) did everything so quick. That saved my life,” said Beer, 74, of Millcreek Township. “If the first doctor hadn’t ordered a biopsy right then, I would have been a goner. The surgeons acted quickly, too. It was all done in like a month’s time.”
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops from the cells that give skin its pigment. It is usually caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation, mainly sunlight, Germain said.
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“Boating, sailing, swimming, all the things we do here in summer exposes us,” Germain said. “You can also get ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds.”
There are about 200,000 cases of melanoma diagnosed each year.
“It’s one of the most serious and worrisome of skin cancers, and the most dangerous,” Germain said. “It’s a very serious cancer. Cases have increased dramatically over the last 30 years. And it’s one of the most common cancers in young adults.”
Early diagnosis and treatment, as in Beer’s case, are key to survival.
The A, B, C, D and E of moles
“Treatment — or what you do for it — depends on how advanced it is, how deeply its grown and whether it has spread to other lymph nodes or organs,” Germain said. “It’s very important to make sure it’s treated early before it spreads or before spread worsens.”
Most melanomas caught at a very early stage are successfully treated by surgical removal alone, he said.
Any irregularity or change in a mole could be a warning sign of melanoma.
“The warning signs are an A, B, C, D and E of moles — Asymmetry, Border irregularity, Color change, Diameter change and Evolution, such as bleeding or itching or other changes,” Germain said.
Beer was familiar with the warning signs before her diagnosis. She was a licensed practical nurse out west before moving back to Erie, her hometown, in 2001.
“I had a patient in California, where I did most of my nursing, who had a little dark spot on his foot,” Beer said. She immediately pointed it out to a doctor. “It turned out to be (advanced) cancer and the man died about two weeks later.”
And like most of us, Beer has heard and read the warnings to watch for changes in moles. A chart on the wall of her foot doctor’s office shows tiny black spots in various places on the body. The chart is labeled, “What do all these have in common? Cancer.”
“I don’t think we hear it often enough,” Beer said.
Beer took the melanoma diagnosis and surgery in stride.
“(The doctors) couldn’t understand why I didn’t freak out. But with all the things that have happened in my life, I’m still here,” Beer said.
A previous cancer survivor, Beer worked hard to get healthy
She previously survived uterine cancer, a heart attack triggered by a blood clot that moved to her heart, chronic bronchitis and frequent bouts of pneumonia. “I stopped counting after 11 times,” she said.
She’s also diabetic and got a mild case of COVID-19 in fall 2020.
Beer has worked hard to get healthy in recent years.
“My job as a nurse was to keep my patients alive and healthy. I needed to do that for myself,” she said.
Beer changed her diet to eliminate bread and most other carbohydrates, plus red meat. She also avoids junk foods.
“Americans probably have the worst diet on the planet. Everything that is healthy, we make unhealthy. We slap more bacon on it and make it worse,” she said.
Beer gradually has lowered her weight from 270 pounds 20 years ago to 187 pounds today, and counting. She’s also controlling her blood sugar.
“Everything’s going great. My doctors are amazed at all the good stuff that’s happening,” she said.
Beer said she feels better and has more energy now than she has had in years.
“A lot of people are afraid of old age and nobody wants to believe they’re going to get old,” she said. “But I feel like I’m reborn. I feel fantastic, better than I have felt in over 20 years,” she said. “I’m not going to knock that. I’m going to go enjoy the heck out of it.”
“Happily divorced” with six children and 15 grandchildren, Beer also enjoys photography and often takes pictures at Presque Isle State Park.
“I have tremors, bad eyesight and a cheap camera, and so am immensely qualified. But my camera loves people and takes good pictures,” she said.
Beer has photographed her doctors and presented each with an 8-inch by 10-inch print.
“They thanked me and asked why I didn’t charge them,” she said. “I tell them, ‘You saved my life. What is that worth?'”