Dermatologist takes lessons from personal cancer scare to heart

June 1, 2010

Dermatologist and Mohs surgeon Ellen Marmur, M.D., knows skin cancer. She performs about 1,000 skin cancer surgeries a year as chief of the division of dermatology and cosmetic surgery, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York. But when a suspicious lesion showed up on her nose, she did not want to think the worst.

Key Points

Dermatologist and Mohs surgeon Ellen Marmur, M.D., knows skin cancer. She performs about 1,000 skin cancer surgeries a year as chief of the division of dermatology and cosmetic surgery, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York.

"I was 12 weeks pregnant and had a little acne, but one spot on my nose seemed to be a little more pearly pink. It wasn't maturing like a normal acne lesion would," she says. "So, I showed it to at least 15 colleagues and asked what they thought. Each one said, 'You're fine.'"

"Leon is one of my favorite people, because he is constantly playing practical jokes on me. He said, 'El, you've got skin cancer.' It did not even occur to me that he was serious, and I started laughing. He said, 'No, El, really. It's basal cell,'" she says.

Experience taught the dermatologist that the cancer was in its early stages and curable. Nevertheless, the news hit hard. "It's still cancer. It still means that your healing mechanisms are not working. And if it can happen right on the tip of your nose, what's going on inside your body?"

A different perspective

Dr. Marmur has since discovered a premelanoma and has had three lesions biopsied. The experience, she says, makes her more sensitive than ever about even the smallest freckle on a patient.

"The lidocaine hurts a lot more than I thought. The bright light is much more unpleasant than I thought. But the skin healed faster than I thought," Dr. Marmur says. "To patients who are worried, I say, 'Look, I had it, too.' I point to my scar and the fear usually drains away from their eyes."

Dr. Marmur, who is author of the consumer book Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman's Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin, says her skin cancer and cosmetic academic practice has taken an educational turn. "My passion has really become skin cancer prevention and sun protection," she says.

Today, Dr. Marmur takes the message of skin cancer awareness and sun protection to schools and has spoken to the military. She has volunteered to triage skin cancers and perform surgeries on the USNS Comfort for Project Hope. She also performs about 100 cases of skin cancer surgery a year for free for the uninsured. She says minorities who are under the false impression that they cannot get skin cancer need to hear that they can.