John Christianson was pretty attached to his beard – until his dermatologist asked him to shave it. It may have saved his life. John had no history of skin cancer when he saw Dr. Amer Kalaaji to check a lesion on his forehead. Dr. Kalaaji did a biopsy – and noticed another, more suspicious spot on John’s cheek, under his thick full beard. He asked John to shave his beard, and come back for a more thorough exam and a full body skin check. “I didn’t shave the whole thing. Just the area where the spot was, and then the other side to balance it,” John says.It was enough. Dr. Kalaaji performed a punch biopsy that showed melanoma, a fast-growing and deadly skin cancer. (The spot on John’s forehead was benign.) “When I first heard the word ‘melanoma,’ I didn’t get panicky but I did get a little sad,” John recalls. “It sounded like it was the last page. But it wasn’t.” Melanoma can be fatal. “Catching melanoma early is critical to a good prognosis,” Dr. Kalaaji says. “If it’s caught early, it can be treated surgically without requiring other therapy.” Dr. Kalaaji referred John to Mayo Clinic in Rochester; he had surgery three days later. “It was reassuring to get it done so quickly,” John says. Dr. Kalaaji is a Mayo physician who sees patients in Northfield Hospital & Clinics’ Lakeville Clinic through a partnership between NH&C and Mayo. That partnership ensures quick, complete specialty care for NH&C patients. “As a Mayo employee for 16 years, I know that most conditions can be treated in the clinic, in Lakeville, and I recognize which cases need more specialized care at Mayo,” Dr. Kalaaji explains. “That helps expedite referrals.” John had Mohs surgery, a precise technique in which thin layers of cancer-containing skin are progressively removed and examined until only cancer-free tissue remains. The goal is to remove as much of the skin cancer as possible, while doing minimal damage to surrounding healthy tissue. John had his stitches removed in the Lakeville Clinic a week later. “I told everyone I got into a swordfight with a pirate,” he laughs. The cancer was caught early enough that John didn’t need additional treatment. “Because John was willing to shave, we were able to catch it early,” Dr. Kalaaji says. “It could have hidden in his beard for years and could have spread to lymph nodes and organs.” “I kidded with Dr. Kalaaji that I didn’t have any problem until he went poking around in my beard,” John says. “I’m glad he did.” Skin cancers can grow quickly. Everyone should perform a monthly self-exam of their skin. Any new lesion, plus any changing moles or lesions, should be evaluated by a dermatologist. Dr. Kalaaji recommends a full head-to-toe skin cancer screening once a year for everyone. Also see a dermatologist for rashes, dermatitis, acne, eczema or hives. “Dr. Kalaaji is terrific,” John says. “He has a friendly, calm manner and is very efficient. His assistants are very helpful. They make a good team.”
A retired minister, John and his wife Norma live on 18 acres near Lakeville, with wooded paths and meadows. John does a lot of mowing. “I’m outdoors a lot. I wear a straw hat,” John says. “I need to develop the habit of wearing sunscreen. But at 78, new habits are hard to develop.” His advice? “I’m sure most people who have a harmless-looking mark like mine would tend to think it’s not serious. Let someone with know-how – the dermatologist – decide that.” John will get a full-body check every three months “to make sure I don’t have a repeat performance,” he says. “I’m not sure if I’ll have to shave or not.” In the meantime, he’ll be wearing his hat.