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Keep a close eye on yourself

After a skin-cancer scare, Ryan Gruenenfelder advises everyone to check for changes.

Carefree days soaking in the sun conjure memories of our teenage days filled with fun, friendships and festivities.

For Ryan Gruenenfelder, they were also major sunburn events. At age 16, he suffered “second- going on third-degree burns” after spending a hot July day shirtless, wearing no sunscreen, at a water park.

He knew he was in trouble when he buckled into a roller coaster the next day at Six Flags Great America and friction from the ride’s shoulder straps tore his skin.

“I was in such pain,” Gruenenfelder said. “That learning moment has always stuck with me.”

Still, after spending his adult life working indoors in offices, Gruenenfelder was surprised when the skin on his left temple turned white about three years ago. Soon -after, a scab began to form.

“I never recalled being sunburned on my temple,” said Gruenenfelder, who works as the director of advocacy and outreach for AARP Illinois in Springfield. “It was kind of scary to me.”

Initially, his doctor suspected Gruenenfelder’s skin condition was an extension of a scalp condition and sprayed it with liquid nitrogen. After a couple months, his temple turned white again, and the condition worsened. Gruenenfelder twice tried a cream that a dermatologist recommended, to no avail.

Gruenenfelder had vivid memories of his maternal grandfather, a farmer, whose arm was amputated 30 years earlier after his skin cancer grew into melanoma and spread throughout his body.

A biopsy revealed basal cell carcinoma that was malignant. And just last month, Gruenenfelder, 46, had surgery to remove a portion of his left temple. The doctors believe they’ve removed all of the cancerous cells.

So just as Gruenenfelder has leveraged his master’s degree in gerontology to advocate for quality health care, support unpaid caregivers and secure retirement savings for older people, he hopes to use his personal experience with cancer to convince everyone to be hypervigilant about changes in their skin, including a new mole or any unusual freckles.

Gruenenfelder conceded that he once felt invincible but now knows caution is key.

“Everyone needs to be obsessively careful when you spend time in the sun,” Gruenenfelder said. “Do everything you can to protect this vital organ we know as skin.”

Although the fear of his cancer returning or spreading is ever-present, Gruenenfelder has maintained confidence over the last three years that he will win his fight with the disease.

That’s partly because of what he describes as “the daily positive mental mindset and gratitude for life” that he has embraced, and partly due to the incredible advancements in treatment that didn’t exist in his grandfather’s time.

Still, he wants everyone to know that the best weapon against cancer is early detection.

“Pay attention when you’re looking in the mirror,” Gruenenfelder said. “Be mindful of what you’re experiencing.”

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