May 5, 2009 is a day I will never forget. I had recently turned nineteen and was a week away from completing my first year of college. Summer was right around the corner, which made all my friends excited because that meant it was beach season. However, the phone call I received on that Tuesday night was from my dermatologist letting me know my biopsy results had come back stating I had stage 1 melanoma. Immediately I became sick to my stomach thinking this couldn’t be possible I thought skin cancer was something only old people got diagnosed with. When I heard the doctor say the word “melanoma” I automatically remembered learning about it in Anatomy and I knew it was the worst type of skin cancer that people died from. So of course I started thinking wow I am going to die and never make it to my twenties or complete college.
In my freshman year of high school I started going to the tanning salon, which was conveniently located around the corner from my high school. My sister was two years older than me and it was something she started doing with her friends before dances so I thought why not go before my winter ball. While dress shopping I noticed all dresses were advertised on thin models whom always had such a nice tan. For my freshman and sophomore of high school I tanned only for dances, which I generally did a month before the event was taking place. It was something all my friends did and soon everyone was coming to school tan making everyone realize people all looked better with that tanned skin. By the time junior year came around I finally got my license and I no longer was only tanning prior to the dance I was now going more often just so I would look good. I thought it was great tanning because I didn’t have to wear makeup everyday it seemed to cure all blemishes and had no discolored skin on my face – or so it seemed. Finally, senior year came around and no one could be happier. That also meant there were much more events taking place throughout the whole year. Tanning at this point had become part of my everyday routine and I made sure I made time for it in my schedule no matter how busy I was. I bought monthly packages, which gave me unlimited visits so I wanted to make sure I could use as many as possible. I now went tanning four to five times a week for the maximum time that was allowed. If for some reason I took a “tanning break” when I started again I would work my way back up by gradually increasing my time…I thought I was doing it the safe way to reduce the chance of getting a burn.
Living close to the beach and working part time made summers perfect. I would lie there all day using no SPF and if I did it was always under 15 an only found in my tanning oils. I would occasionally burn but I just assumed it was the initial first burn needed before maintaining my summer tan.
I went through my first year of college participating in the same tanning routines as my senior year of high school if not worse. It wasn’t until about January 2009 when I noticed I had a pinkish mole on my stomach that would get a little pinker when I would go tanning. I told my best friend who shared the same tanning routine as myself. We looked up images of skin cancer on the Internet but were grossed out by the pictures we saw and closed the screen. The few images we saw looking nothing like mine so I just thought it was a burn or something to do with the lotion I used while tanning. Over the next few months while I still continued to tan I would rip the tanning stickers they give you or a small Band-Aid to cover my spot. I thought it would be better if the light didn’t hit it directly.
For some reason I kept noticing this spot on my stomach standing out to me so the end of March I finally called the dermatologist to make an appointment. The receptionist made my a check up for April 17, which when the day came I almost cancelled because my friends all planned a trip to six flags but for some reason I knew I needed to get it checked for my own comfort. I actually went tanning the night before my appointment, which was thankfully my last time.
It had been over ten years since I last went to a dermatologist because it wasn’t something I ever saw necessary but after I had a regular examine I told him about my spot. The doctor took a look and said it had no unusual characteristics but he would do a punch biopsy to be sure he scheduled me an appointment to come back in two weeks to have the stitch removed and get results. Exactly two weeks later I went back on May 1st this time I didn’t go alone both my parents decided to go with me and thank god they did. When I got into the office my dermatologist told me he didn’t have my results because they had been sent for further testing and from what it did show it wasn’t good. I suddenly knew it wasn’t a joke anymore by the seriousness of his voice and look. He told me it was cancer and there was a high chance it was melanoma. My heart stopped and I had to leave the room immediately because I needed air otherwise I thought I might pass out. He told me he would call my house with the results as soon as possible. That day I went home and started researching melanoma and every page I found talked about the chances of survival and I made myself sick over it.
The following Tuesday night he called with the news I never thought I’d hear until I was eighty. It was that night I was diagnosed with stage I melanoma that was less than 1.0mm thickness. Surgery was booked for May 18th where the surgeon wanted to remove the melanoma and clear the area surrounding the mole. To do the surgery they went three inches to the left and right of the mole as well as down to the muscles. To make sure the skin removed was clear they test the margins, which means they have a pathologist determine if the border of the skin removed contains any more melanoma. Luckily, my melanoma could be removed with one surgery and I did not need my lymph nodes removed.
I was left with a six-inch scar on my stomach but it didn’t stop there. This was just the beginning of my new life journey. I needed a follow up with the surgeon two weeks after the surgery then every three months for the next two years because he told me there was a 60% chance of it coming back in the same area. At these appointments he checked my lymph nodes and scar area. In addition to the appointments to the surgeon I had to make appointments to go to the dermatologist every three months, which would continue for the rest of my life.
This all seemed to happen too quickly even though I was very angry at the time thinking over and over “why me” I realized over time it was truly a blessing in disguise. If I had tanned any longer it would have spread to my whole body not making recovery all that easy. I wish I could say surgery was the end of it and it was happily ever after but that’s not the case. For a long time after my diagnosis I let melanoma consume me by constantly researching it and having biopsy after biopsy a couple more atypical spots that needed additional removal. Constant worrying because I couldn’t help but think what if I missed a spot and my doctor misses something? I became cautious and whenever I think something is wrong I make an appointment for that day or one following because it is something I no longer put off.
The worst part of this whole thing is I did it to myself. All I can think of is other cancers people can’t do anything about but this is something that can be prevented. I never wanted to believe tanning was bad and hated when people told me that but if I would have listened I wouldn’t be in this position today. Tanning is never safe even if only doing for a short time for something like the prom. If a tan is desired there are safer alternatives such a spray tans. To be tan for one night and a lifetime of fear your cancer will come back is simply not worth it.
Today I am a member of MFNE’s Survivor Bureau and share my story with high school and college students. I was asked to share my story for the new “Exposed” video along with other melanoma survivors. Check it out here. I also volunteer at events whenever I can and continue to spread awareness about the dangers of tanning.