Fortunately for Bob Vega, his diagnosis of basal cell carcinoma represented one of the most common and low-risk forms of cancer.
“I remember, he went to the doctor and he came home with a Band-Aid on his nose, and that was that,” said his daughter, Peters Township resident Jessica Rogowicz. “And so I kept going tanning, because I thought, oh, OK. If I get skin cancer, I’ll have a Band-Aid on my nose.
“And then I ended up with the kind that’s deadly.”
A few days before her 25th birthday, she learned she had melanoma, a malignant skin cancer that tends to metastasize, spreading to other parts of the body.
“Melanoma can kill you, and it is very aggressive,” Dr. Howard Edington of Allegheny Health Network, Rogowicz’s longtime oncologist, explained. “It is becoming much more common. Nobody understands why, but one of the reasons that has been blamed is recreational sun exposure.”
To help inform others about the disease that claims 10,000-plus lives in the United States annually, Rogowicz joined Bethel Park resident Lauren Simko to form the Pittsburgh Melanoma Foundation.
Last month, the group presented a $25,000 donation toward melanoma research and awareness programs under Edington’s direction, following a $20,000 contribution in 2015.
“A lot of people don’t know about it,” said Rogowicz, who teaches applied learning strategies at South Fayette Township High School. “I was the same way. I didn’t know about it until I was diagnosed with it.”
The mother of two has been cancer-free for five years, following a recurrence of the melanoma when she was 29.
“I always say the second time, for me, was harder,” she said. “The first time I had melanoma, I beat myself up because I knew that I went to tanning beds and I never wore sunscreen, and I pushed my luck. And then for four years after that, I was very careful.”
Around that time came the idea that became the Pittsburgh Melanoma Foundation.
“I had a lot of negative energy built up,” Rogowicz explained. “I was very young when I was diagnosed, so I felt like I was the only person in the entire world who ever went through this, and I wanted to educate other people.”
Her efforts started with a fundraising 5K run/walk in 2012. Among those who participated was Simko, a pharmacist who had lost her father, Joseph L. Vavrek, to Stage IV melanoma.
Since then, the women have continued to organize the 5K annually, and they’ve added the Sunscreen Open Golf Outing, along with various other events. All told, the foundation has raised $105,000 in five years.
Rogowicz also established the Miles Against Melanoma Scholarship, which provides $1,000 for education majors at her alma mater, Carlow University. As part of the application process, students are asked to submit lesson plans detailing how to be safe in the sun to avoid health hazards.
Entering 2017, the Pittsburgh Melanoma Foundation is partnering with Edington to form a melanoma support group for patients and family members.
“That’s very important to both the group and to me as a doctor taking care of these folks,” Edington said. “That is going to be my immediate priority as to what to with Jessica’s group.”
He provided some advice regarding detection of skin problems.
“I think one of the most important things is the notion of change,” he said. “If you see something that’s changing, or if you see something that wasn’t there a month ago, those are key messages that something’s not right.”
Rogowicz and Simko, meanwhile, plan to continue to fulfill the mission of the melanoma foundation.
“There are so many families all over the Pittsburgh area who have been affected by this and who also need that outlet for their emotional baggage,” Rogowicz said. “It helps take a negative situation and turn it into something positive.”
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If melanoma is recognized and treated early, it almost always is curable. But if it is not, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body, where it becomes difficult to treat and can be fatal.
Look for the “ABCDE” signs of melanoma, and if you see one or more, make an appointment with a physician immediately.
Asymmetry: With a benign mole, the two sides will match, meaning it is symmetrical. An asymmetrical mole represents a warning sign for melanoma.
Border: A benign mole has smooth, even borders. The borders of an early melanoma tend to be uneven. The edges may be scalloped or notched.
Color: Most benign moles are all one color, often a single shade of brown. Having a variety of colors is another warning signal. A number of different shades of brown, tan or black could appear. A melanoma may also become red, white or blue.
Diameter: Benign moles usually have a smaller diameter than malignant ones. Melanomas usually are larger in diameter than a pencil eraser, but they may sometimes be smaller when first detected.
Evolving: Be on the alert when a mole starts to evolve in any way. Any change – in size, shape, color, elevation, or another trait, or any new symptom such as bleeding, itching or crusting – points to danger.
Source: Skin Cancer Foundation, www.skincancer.org