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Augusta Health Attacks Skin Cancer Head-On

Published in Health Matters, Summer 2009

When Kathleen Heatwole, Augusta Health's Vice President for Planning and Development, found an unusual red spot on the side of her nose a year ago, she knew she had cause for concern. She was all too familiar with skin cancer because she, her mother and grandmothers had all been diagnosed in the past. Heatwole made an appointment with dermatologist Kristen Savola, M.D., Director of Augusta Health's La Vie Medi-Spa. Dr. Savola examined Heatwole and biopsied the growth. It came back positive for basal cell carcinoma, a serious but treatable form of skin cancer.

Radiation treatment at Augusta Health takes place in a peaceful setting.

What is Basal Cell Carcinoma?

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. Seventy-five percent of all skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas (a nonmelanoma cancer), according to the American Cancer Society. "It usually appears on the head, neck and hands as a small, fleshy bump, nodule or red patch, although other parts of the body can be affected too," says Dr. Savola.

The cancer can take months or years to grow, so it's important to detect any spots early. Left untreated, it can spread below the skin to the bone and nerves. "Fair-skinned people who sunburn easily are at high risk, as are people with blue or green eyes and blond or red hair," says Dr. Savola.

Top-notch treatment Augusta Health offers the best in comprehensive care for the prevention, evaluation and treatment of basal cell carcinoma and other skin cancers. Dr. Savola discussed with Heatwole the treatment options Augusta Health offers:

  • Surgical excision surgically removes the growth.
  • Electrodessication and curettage scrapes or burns off growths.
  • Imiquimod cream is applied to the skin five times a week for six weeks to kill the cancer cells.
  • Radiation treatment uses X-rays to gradually destroy cancer cells.

Heatwole was interested in radiation therapy since she had experienced good results in the past with this treatment for another basal cell cancer. "I have very fair skin and I scar easily, so radiation was the best option for me to treat my facial skin cancer," Heatwole says. Dr. Savola referred her to Augusta Health
radiation oncologist Robert Kyler, M.D., for evaluation.

"Most basal cell carcinomas can be treated surgically. But when the lesion is on the face, we try to preserve the patient's appearance as much as possible," explains Dr. Kyler. "Removing lesions from cartilage-bearing structures such as the nose, eyelids and ears leaves defects that have to be closed—often with skin grafts—resulting in a look that's sometimes not cosmetically ideal."

Picture-Perfect Results

Heatwole underwent radiation treatment at Augusta Health every day for four weeks. Side effects included reddening of her skin that disappeared after a few weeks. "I now only have a small scar that can be covered up with makeup," says Heatwole.

"Our goal is to provide our patients with minimal disfiguration while offering a superior, cancer-free result," says Dr. Kyler. The advanced treatment available at Augusta Health helped to destroy Heatwole's basal cell carcinoma lesion. She now follows up every six months with a skin screening and keeps a close
watch for changes or development of any other moles, freckles or beauty marks. Augusta Health stands ready to help you or a loved one put skin cancer to rest.