Published on July 17, 2017

Skin Cancer Survivor: Dr. Raymond and Susan Kieffer

Growing up in southern Minnesota the summer days of Raymond Kieffer' youth were spent baling hay, trimming trees and as a roofer - all of them baking in the sun. "We didn't use sunscreen back then," explains Ray. This is why his wife of 44 years, Susan, was so vigilant to watch for signs of skin cancer on the fair skinned Irishman she fell in love with during dental school.

In 2009 Susan first noticed a mole in the middle of Ray' lower back that she was concerned about. However it wasn't until May of 2012 that they saw a dermatologist. Susan had been noting color changes and an irregular shape. Her persistence is what prompted the visit to a specialist who determined it was melanoma and they proceeded with treatment.

Ray' journey in battling cancer over the past four years has included medical teams at Essentia, Mayo and Banner, located in Arizona during winters. What stands out to the couple is the ability of these organizations to coordinate his care seamlessly.

"Caring for our patients means offering them choices in treatment options and making it possible for them to experience all life has," says Raymond' Oncologist Dr. Aby Philip at the Cancer Center at Essentia Health-St. Joseph' Medical Center.

Ray' melanoma cancer has metastasized many times from small lumps in his hip and upper leg; that was removed by Essentia surgeon Dr. Ross Bengtson; to his stomach, pancreas, and spleen. Thanks to new treatment options including an immunotherapeutic drug called Nivolumab, used to control the cancer cell growth, the tumors Ray had are not visible anymore. But Ray knows his cancer battle is ongoing.

The Kieffer' want their journey to be understood as a message of hope. "There are continuous advancements in medicine to treat both the cancer cells and the side effects. Working with a team who is aware of these advancements and provides options is key."

"We can't say that I am cancer free, but we don't have fear like we used to either," reflects Ray. "We have confidence in our care team, each other and our faith. We don't look too far ahead, but instead look for the positive in each day."

The Kieffer' advice to others is to be vigilant with yearly checks. Catching skin cancer early is important.

You don't have to live in a Sun Belt to develop skin cancer. Many people in this area have fair Scandinavian skin with less natural pigment to avoid getting really bad sunburns. That' why it is so important that people understand that skin cancer is increasing and learn how to protect themselves.

The AAD recommends everyone use sunscreen that offers the following:

  • Broad-spectrum protection (protects against UVA and UVB rays)
  • Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30 or higher
  • Water resistance

A sunscreen that offers the above helps to protect your skin from sunburn, early skin aging and skin cancer. However, sunscreen alone cannot fully protect you. In addition to wearing sunscreen, dermatologists recommend taking the following steps to protect your skin and find skin cancer early:

  • Seek shade when appropriate, remembering that the sun' rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, when possible.
  • Use extra caution near water, snow and sand as they reflect the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase your chance of sunburn.
  • Get vitamin D safely through a healthy diet that may include vitamin supplements. Don't seek the sun.
  • Avoid tanning beds. Ultraviolet light from the sun and tanning beds can cause skin cancer and wrinkling. If you want to look tan, you may wish to use a self-tanning product, but continue to use sunscreen with it.
  • Check your birthday suit on your birthday. If you notice anything changing, itching or bleeding on your skin, see a board-certified dermatologist. Skin cancer is very treatable when caught early.