I’m Joanna, I was a total beach bum spending my summers on Wingaersheek of Gloucester, Massachusetts and also, a tanning bed user throughout my teens and twenties. Being “tantastic” year-round made me feel healthy and more attractive. I was diagnosed with stage I melanoma when I was 25 years old. I was down the beach one day, doing my usual routine of lying out with family and friends to work on my summer tan, when my little sister noticed a dark freckle on my upper right thigh. She said “wow, what is that, it is really dark.” I thought she was just being a bratty little sister and brushed her off and continued to enjoy the rest of the day at the beach. However, just one month later when I went to my dermatology appointment, the first thing the doctor noticed when she started my skin check was that dark black freckle. From there the long journey began, with a biopsy and a promise to get in touch with me in a few days. I will never forget the phone call, it was a Friday afternoon and I was back at my parent’s summer home getting ready for a weekend at the beach, when the doctor called. She first asked who I was with and I explained that my mother was there with me in the kitchen. Then she told me very matter of factly that the test results came back, and I have Melanoma. My mother could tell something was wrong because I stood there silent while the doctor explained that we needed to come in immediately to discuss our next course of action. I just kept saying yes to the doctor and at that point my mother came over and wrote on a piece of paper “melanoma, no?”, and all I could write back on the paper was “yes” and circle it . At that point she started to cry as did I. I thought that nothing would ever be the same. I could never be down at the beach that I loved so much, I could never go away on vacations where the sun would be shining, I just couldn’t believe that it happened to me. How did I get melanoma? But then again, I know how, I was irresponsible with sun protection. Years of lying out down the beach without any sunscreen, thinking that I’m Italian, I don’t burn, there is no need to put on sunscreen because I can worry about wrinkles later. Several days a week I would head to the tanning beds during the winter months when I wanted that same summer glow. I felt more attractive with a tan, and going to the tanning beds became part of my weekly routine both in high school and college.
After my diagnosis my family tried to stay positive and remind me that we would get through it together. I received calls from all of my relatives and friends saying we were going to beat this thing! But of course I was scared and at the same time truly disappointed in myself. I knew the dangers of tanning but I ignored them.
Five surgeries and almost four years later, I am melanoma free. The surgeries were painful and took many weeks of recovery time. There were times when I had to move back in with my parents because I couldn’t walk up the stairs into my apartment, or I couldn’t take care of my stitches, due to the location. I was in Graduate school at the time, and had to start using a small suitcase on wheels, because I was unable to carry a book bag following a surgery on my back. After my surgeries on my leg, I wasn’t allowed to go to the gym, climb stairs, or even drive my standard car. This was all really difficult to get used to. I felt like my independence was taken away from me when I got melanoma and that was very hard to accept.
However, I did try to take this experience and turn it into something positive. My Primary Care Physician at the time was involved with Melanoma Foundation of New England (MFNE). She urged me to reach out and see if there was an opportunity to tell my story and share it with other young people. I will say that one of the main things that helped me cope with having Melanoma was volunteering with the MFNE. Visiting high schools and colleges, and standing up in front of hundreds of kids to tell them about my journey was incredibly therapeutic, and I stopped feeling so disappointed in myself about the harmful choices I had made. My mission was to just get a few kids to stop using tanning beds, but the response has been overwhelming. I have had people come up to me and say how they have heard my story, and it prompted them to stop using tanning beds or start wearing sunscreen. I am so happy to say that none of my family members or friends use tanning beds anymore. I still go to the beach but I’m smart about it, wearing my sunscreen, hats and long sleeves. As for tanning beds, I will never set foot in one again! I have embraced the mantra that “pale is pretty” and you don’t need a tan in January to look healthy! I must thank the MFNE though for giving me a voice in this cause and credit them for helping me through these challenging past few years.