Life Saving Storyline:
Katherine Heigl's melanoma on "Grey's Anatomy"

Occasionally, television programs can do more than just amuse.  In Spring 2009, “Gray’s Anatomy” may have helped save lives.  Fresh off a silly story arc involving hot sex with her ex’s ghost (we’re not making this up), Katherine Heigl’s character confronts a true scare: Melanoma skin cancer. 

Noting a small lesion on her back, along with headaches and the spirit sex hallucinations, Heigl’s tests show metastatic cancer.  She undergoes chemotherapy, loses her hair, and in the show’s season five finale, flat lines on the operating table.


What inspired the show’s producers to create this story line?  Was it McSteamy actor Eric Dane’s brush with relatively benign precancerous lesion?  Was it Heigl’s burgeoning film career, allowing her character an option to leave the show for good?  Whatever the reason, they got the details (mostly) right.  Young women can get life threatening melanoma skin cancer.  Youthful sunburns combined with tanning bed exposure directly contribute to the risk.  Usually, the lesions like that shown on Heigl’s back would be superficial enough to be fully treated with a surgical removal.  A melanoma capable of traveling throughout the body would typically be larger and more raised.

The important news is that viewers were alerted to check their moles and contact their doctors.  We can’t know how many dermatology visits occurred after “Anatomy” episodes or if any melanoma lesions were discovered because of the show.  Since catching and treating melanoma works best as early in the process as possible, hats (and surgical masks) off to Heigl and the “Anatomy” producers for spreading an important message.  Not to mention dropping the hunky ghost plot.

Runner up, Life Saving Storyline: 
Kathleen Sebelius has skin cancer surgery

Sebelius, the current US Secretary of Health and Human Services, was treated for basal cell skin cancer on her forehead, causing temporary eye swelling.   Fortunately the basal cell cancer was entirely removed and she returned to testifying before Congress the week of her surgery.

© 1996-2010 Vail Reese M.D.

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