Sun & Skin News

Hiding in Plain Sight: NYPD Veteran Uncovers Clues for Detecting Skin Cancer 

By Victoria Kopec • October 21, 2021
Manhattan skyline on a sunny day Empire State Building on the right, New York, United States

A skin cancer diagnosis gives an expert investigator new skills for early detection. #ThisIsSkinCancer

Retired NYPD detective Ron Licciardi thought he had seen it all. The 9/11 first-responder spent more than 20 years looking for clues and carefully examining evidence while solving all kinds of cases. But when it came to his own skin, he learned a hard lesson about how to identify skin cancer warning signs hiding in plain sight.

In early 2019, Ron’s wife pointed out a new spot on his nose, and one on his shoulder that was changing size and color. “She said to me, ‘You know, you have to get these checked.’”

Ron was not concerned. “Skin cancer never crossed my mind,” he explained. “Thanks to her persistence, I got checked by a dermatologist, who informed me that seeing something new or changing on your skin is an important clue that you can’t overlook.”

A short time after his skin exam, Ron’s phone rang. “It was my dermatologist, who told me that both biopsies came back as skin cancers,” he said. “My heart sank when I heard the ‘C’ word. I started researching online. It was encouraging to learn that this type, basal cell carcinoma or BCC, is very curable when caught early.”

Picture of a man's nose after bcc treatment
BCC before surgery BCC after surgery

Photos courtesy of Ron Licciardi

Ron was treated with Mohs surgery for the BCC on his nose and electrosurgery to remove the one on his shoulder. “The Mohs is a precision kind of surgery, and luckily it only took one round to get the entire thing. The cancer started out as small as a freckle and I ended up with a wound larger than a pencil eraser. I’m lucky I did not wait. If it grew any bigger, who knows what the scar would look like!”

A Lifetime of Sun Exposure

Like many people growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, Ron did not use much sunscreen. “I went to the beach and played outdoor sports all summer long without protecting my skin,” he explained. “Sunscreen was not widely used, and I never really thought twice about getting sunburned.”

Picture of a NYC Police Officer

As a rookie officer in 1991, Ron’s hat did not protect his nose from the sun.

In the 1990s, Ron entered the NYPD, got married and started a family. All the while, his sun exposure continued – working cases, coaching his son’s baseball games and going on beach vacations. Even though the correlation between sun exposure and skin cancer was more publicly understood, Ron explained that sun protection was “not top of mind” during this busy time in his life.

From “Lackadaisical” to “Locked In”

While women are more vigilant than men about skin care and safety, new research suggests that couples can work together improve their sun protection habits. Ron admitted that over the decades, his wife did most of the sunburn prevention work. She was the one bringing sunscreen on outings and reminding him to reapply.

“Sometimes I would do it and sometimes I wouldn’t,” he said. “You could say I was a little lackadaisical about it.”

Since his diagnosis, Ron changed his ways. “Right off the bat at age 54, I had more than one skin cancer. And there’s a family history of skin cancer – my older brother and sister have also been diagnosed with it. So now I’m locked in when it comes to protecting myself,” he explained.

Another Skin Cancer in 2021 

Ron knows that a history of two or more skin cancers puts him at a much higher risk of developing further skin cancers. In October 2021, he noticed something new on his scalp – a scaly lesion that occasionally bled. He immediately went to see his dermatologist. The biopsy showed that this time, Ron had squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). While the majority of SCCs can be successfully treated, if left to grow, this common skin cancer can become invasive, penetrate deeper layers of skin and spread to other parts of the body.

Ron’s lesion was removed with Mohs surgery, the most effective technique for treating SCCs. It is often recommended for SCCs located in cosmetically or functionally important areas, including the scalp. Mohs is done in stages while the patient waits. After removing a layer of tissue, the surgeon examines it under a microscope in an on-site lab. If any cancer cells remain, the surgeon removes another layer from that precise location, sparing as much healthy tissue as possible. This process is repeated until no cancer cells remain.

After two layers were removed, Ron’s scalp was clear of cancer cells. “I’m glad I got it checked out and taken care of right away,” he explained.

SCC Before and after Mohs surgery

SCC removed by Mohs surgery on the scalp.

You Can See it, So You Can Do Something About It 

Having three skin cancers within two years has made a profound impression on Ron. “Never again will I go outside without a hat. Now I take extreme precautions – umbrellas, wide-brimmed hats, sun protective clothing, and of course diligent sunscreen use,” he said.

These days, Ron performs monthly self exams to look for anything new, changing or unusual on his skin. He asks his wife to check the hard-to-see places. “My doctor educated me about what to look for, especially when checking my scalp, my arm tattoos and other places where skin cancers can hide.” Twice a year, he sees his dermatologist for a skin cancer screening.

Now that his investigative skills include skin cancer detection, Ron shares his story and his knowledge with his large social media following. “Here’s a PSA for you, and a constant reminder. The sun is not your friend. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the world, but unlike other cancers, you can see it, so you can do something about it. I implore everyone: check your skin and protect it from the sun. Get yourself examined professionally once a year. It could make the difference between life and death.”