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Saving her skin: Leopold’s melanoma caught early, successfully treated

Since her basal cell melanoma diagnosis and dermatologic treatments, Bobbi Leopold of Adrian has revised her sun habits. (Tim Middagh/Daily Globe)

ADRIAN -- As a child of the early ’80s, Bobbi Leopold frequently frolicked outdoors during the hot Minnesota summers, happily ignorant of the truth that her light complexion could increase her risk for damage from sun exposure.

“I’m a typical blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned person,” said Leopold, a resident of rural Adrian, where she lives with her husband Mark and their two daughters, for the past decade.

“I’d be the one to get it if someone was going to.”

“It” is skin cancer, which Leopold nevertheless managed to avoid until she was nearly 38.

“When I was a kid, I pretty much spent all my summers at the swimming pool and I really never wore sunscreen,” recalled Leopold.

“As a teenager, I hung out at the beach and went to tanning beds. I never gave much thought to my skin.”

Today, Leopold is a registered nurse who works for Good Samaritan Society’s home health services, but even being armed with professional knowledge of the risks didn’t lead her to completely avoid tanning beds or excessive sun exposure, or fully prepare her for the eventual outcome.

“I had one really bad second-degree burn on my face as a teen, and I remember burning a lot as a kid at the pool, but skin cancer is always something that happens to someone else,” admitted Leopold.

But about a year ago, Leopold noticed a small bump in the corner of her eye.

“I kind of ignored it, but I didn’t know what it was,” she said.

When she went in to see Brenda Bullerman, PA-C, at the Sanford Health Adrian Clinic for a physical last spring, she pointed it out to the medical practitioner.

“She thought it looked like a basal cell carcinoma and referred me to a dermatologist,” said Leopold.

Dr. Kelly Jerstad of Dakota Dermatology Ltd. in Sioux Falls, S.D., biopsied the bump and the biopsy was, indeed, positive for basal cell melanoma.

“She did the Mohs procedure, where they scrape the area, stain the scraping, review it under slides and if the cancerous cells are still in there, they go back and scrape it again, all in one visit,” detailed Leopold.

“Dr. Jerstad did two scrapings on the area and got it all taken care of.”

Leopold’s skin story was not yet over, however.

“While I was there, I had her also look at a spot on my back that my husband had noticed,” said Leopold. “It was in a tattoo with darker ink, so it hadn’t always been there but was harder to see.

“She took a look at it and said, ‘That needs to come off right now.’”

Another biopsy followed, and a second diagnosis of basal cell melanoma was made.

“Only about two weeks ago, they did an excision of that,” said Leopold. “They cut a pretty good-sized chunk of skin out, and now my back is all stitched up.

“The good news is they said they got all of it, and it hadn’t spread, so that’s really good -- they caught it early.”

Leopold knows she is lucky, because she likely wouldn’t have had the spot checked at all if she hadn’t already had a reason to see a dermatologist.

“They told me the way melanoma works is that once it gets down through a certain skin layer, it can get into your lymph nodes and spread from there,” she said.

“Mine was still in situ, or still kind of encapsulated, and hadn’t spread further.”

Since her diagnosis and dermatologic treatments, Leopold has revised her sun habits.

“Before, I wouldn’t put on sunscreen when I was going outside unless I knew we’d be outside all day; I didn’t think it was a really big deal,” said Leopold, adding that she often would end up with “a little burn” as a result.

“Now, I should buy stock in a sunscreen company,” she laughed. “I’m applying it religiously now, 20 minutes before I go outside.”

One downside to less sun time is that Leopold must pay attention to her Vitamin D levels.

“I have to kind of watch out for Vitamin D deficiency since I’m staying out of the sun more,” said Leopold. “I’m keeping track to see if I need to start taking supplements.”

With her daughters now ages 12 and 15, Leopold has become much more vigilant about enforcing safer sun habits, like applying sunscreen and avoiding direct sunlight from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. when the UV rays are at their most intense. (As of 2015, the American Cancer Society recommends using extreme caution with prolonged exposure to direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.)

“They’ve seen my back,” said Leopold, “so they know, ‘This is what can happen.’”

Leopold doesn’t think any other members in her immediate or extended family have developed skin cancer to date, but her experiences have left her with new opinions.

“Brenda Bullerman, and all the doctors and nurses who treated me, were really helpful and good in all the situations,” said Leopold.

“So I’d say, if you notice anything unusual on your body, get it checked out right away; if it’s nothing, great, but I hate to think of people dying because of a couple bad sunburns in their lifetimes.

“Skin cancer is something that’s really preventable, so wear sunscreen, put it on your kids and save your skin.”

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