I didn’t grow up tanning. I have fair skin and red hair, and I didn’t like lying out in the sun or even going to the beach. And when I was exposed to the sun, I didn’t get tan. I just got a little pink and freckled.
In fact, I got my first tan when I went to Florida in 2001. I was 17 years old, and I was really excited about how I looked. When I returned home, I started going to a tanning salon to keep up the color. Over the next two and a half years I returned once a week. I wasn’t super dark; I was just tan for my complexion. I thought it was OK because a nurse friend told my family that a tanning bed doesn’t cause skin cancer the way sunlight does. I learned she was wrong when I developed skin cancer.
If you are in a high-risk group for skin cancer or have ever been treated for some form of the disease, you should familiarize yourself with how skin cancers look. Examine your skin from head to toe every few months, using a full-length mirror and hand mirror to check your mouth, nose, scalp, palms, soles, backs of ears, genital area, and between the buttocks. Cover every inch of skin and pay special attention to moles and sites of previous skin cancer. If you find a suspicious growth, have it examined...
I had a mole on my stomach that I showed my doctor. She was nonchalant about it -- it was dark and itchy, but it didn’t have the irregular borders of melanoma. She said I could get it removed for cosmetic reasons, and I did. But after it was removed, I was told I had stage 2 melanoma. Suddenly we were talking about cancer, survival rates, lymph nodes. I was completely shocked and very scared.
The doctors did further surgery to take out any other cancerous cells. They also removed eight of my lymph nodes, which, luckily, showed no signs of cancer. The 7-inch incision took a really long time to heal. But I went back to classes at Roger Williams University (in Bristol, R.I.) three days after the surgery.
Recovering from skin cancer
I was very depressed. I blamed myself for getting skin cancer. I didn’t think my college friends understood how serious my illness was, and I resented that they kept lying in the sun and going to tanning salons -- even knowing what had happened to me.
I’ve been cancer-free for four years now. I graduated from college and work as an advertising and promotions manager for Six Flags New England -- a job I love. I know I’m at a higher risk for melanoma than someone who’s never had it, but I go to the dermatologist every six months to get checked, and I see my oncologist once a year.