New Canaan resident Jeannie Hart knew skin cancer was common. Several of her friends have had it, but she "never thought it was going to be" her.
But one day, when she decided to visit a doctor for a small lesion between her lip and nose, she learned she had skin cancer.
"I had noticed something on my face, but it really looked like nothing," she said. "I was stunned when (the dermatologist) called and told me that it was cancerous."
But Hart still hadn't realized how common skin cancer was until she went to have surgery at a doctor's office in Stamford on April 12.
Hart and two of her longtime friends, who also are from New Canaan, ran into each other as they went to have surgery at Dr. Omar Ibrahimi's office at the Connecticut Skin Institute. None of the women -- Hart, Gill Foster or Nancy Sessions -- knew about each other's condition or that they would be there that day.
Sessions' husband, Bill, said he and the three women were amazed at the surprise meeting.
"The ladies accused the doctor and his office of selecting his patients by ZIP code," he said. "But it was just a total coincidence."
Ibrahimi denied grouping his patients by town and said the coincidence goes to show how widespread skin cancer has become.
"Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer," he said. "And we really have an epidemic of skin cancer on our hands."
More than 2 million people are diagnosed with at least one type of skin cancer, including non-melanoma, every year in the U.S., according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Non-melanoma skin cancers are typically diagnosed as basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma and are highly curable.
Nancy Sessions said she thought the doctor scheduled them on the same day on purpose.
"We all were quite surprised to see each other," she said. "How else could you do this?"
The three ladies were there to have Mohs surgery, a micrographic procedure that has been embraced by an increasing number of surgeons as the most effective technique for removing non-melanoma carcinomas, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation's website.
Nancy Sessions had undergone Mohs surgery before at Yale-New Haven Hospital for a different skin cancer. But after she met Ibrahimi at a skin cancer presentation at the Lapham Center in March, she decided to give him a try.
She then visited him on April 12 to have a squamous cell tumor removed from the middle of her scalp. She was diagnosed about a month before surgery.
"Nancy (had) complained about this sore that she had, and I looked at it," Bill Sessions said. "It didn't look good to me, so we went to a regular dermatologist in Stamford, where it was confirmed it was (malignant)."
As Bill Sessions was watching the doctor operate on his wife, he was shocked at the size of the cyst.
"At the start of it, it looked about the size of a 10-cent piece. When he finished, it was about the size of a half-dollar," he said.
However, everything went well, if not better than expected. "He managed to do everything without shaving her hair," Bill Sessions said.
Foster had a similar procedure that morning and Hart was there for removal of a cyst on her upper lip.
Nancy Sessions said she and Foster started the "roadway triangles," which are the 32 roadside gardens throughout New Canaan, and have worked together through the New Canaan Garden Club, where she said they met Hart, and the New Canaan Beautification League.
Hart said seeing her friends there made the surgery "painless."
"I was so amazed and so relieved to find two of my closest friends right there in the office's waiting room," she said.
Just about a month after the surgeries, Ibrahimi said all three patients are in great condition, especially because they were diagnosed early.
"This can really be cured," he said, especially because of Mohs' effectiveness. "Mohs has the best cosmetic outcome. You spare a lot more skin than most other surgeries because the hole is a lot smaller so it's easy to sew it together."
Ibrahimi said the procedure is even better than others for cancers that are exposed. "When it comes to your face, you want to try to get it right," he said.
The doctor said those who have skin as fair as the three New Canaan women are more prone to skin cancer. Those who have multiple sunburns, moles or have used tanning booths also are at highest risk for skin cancer, according to the 2013 American Cancer Society report.
Other risk factors include sun sensitivity, a history of excessive sun exposure and a past history of skin cancer.
Hart said she loved tanning when she was young and would even "put on olive oil or iodine to get even darker."
Ibrahimi said people should be alert to changes in skin growths, including the appearance of new growths. New or unusual lesions should be evaluated by a physician, he said.
Hart, who said she is now much more aware of changes in her skin, almost didn't see a doctor for her lesion. "I was so surprised because it didn't look like it was worth even paying attention to," she said.
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