My skin cancer story

This picture to the left is me in Jamaica the summer before the diagnosis. I did wear a hat everywhere but I wore SPF 4 most of the time that I worked there. One of those summers, I met some girls from Brazil who had this magic tanning oil. We knew a hurricane was coming in the next day so we thought it would be a great idea to lay out all day and tan since we wouldn’t see any sun for a week. They looked fabulous. I spent the week covered in aloe, cucumbers and taking mineral baths. I’m still looking for a photo of this experience. I’ll post it when I find it.

Part of my story: I have a not so attractive 2 inch scar on my arm from the second surgery to remove a tiny mole. I had little idea. I went into see the dermatologist because my skin had been breaking out due to hormones and my OBGYN referred me. I had never had a body scan to look at freckles so I agreed to get checked out.

The mole on my arm was pretty small. As I learned the ABCD’s of skin cancer: A is for asymmetry, B is for border (irregular), C is for color (changes usually) and D is for diameter (larger than a pencil eraser); I found that mine fit some of the criteria. It was asymmetric, changed color- from skin color to dark pink/brown, and over the years would occasionally bleed and scab.

Unfortunately, I also have, well, pretty much all of the risk factors:

  • Having fair skin, red or blond hair– I am a natural redhead
  • Having light-colored eyes– I have green/blue eyes
  • Sunburning easily– always the first time or two each year
  • Having many moles, freckles or birthmarks– have freckles on shoulders a few random ones elsewhere, check
  • Working or playing outside-  growing up- all the time and promotional  modeling was often outdoors all day long
  • Being in the sun a lot as a child– we had a lake house and  a pool and did not wear much sunscreen at all
  • Having had a serious sunburn– several where I blistered
  • Having had skin cancer, or having family members who have had skin cancer– my g grandmother had it
  • Tanning in the sun or with a sunlamp– again: lakehouse, pool, Barton Springs, tubing, working in Jamaica
  •  I had two biopsies after this initial visit  and was shocked to get a phone call as well as a folder full of information in the mail a few days later that said I had melanoma staged 1. I remember sliding down the wall while on the telephone silent and kind of in shock. I scheduled the surgery soon after and my father drove me there, stayed in the waiting room and drove me home. The reality of it all didn’t hit me until later on. I certainly feel blessed that I had a good doctor that diagnosed it early and that it had not spread to my lymph nodes or anywhere else. So many people are not so lucky.

    I grew up with a pool in the backyard, in the neighborhood, a lake house, vacations to the coast, Barton Springs close by, and rivers to go tubing on. And let’s not forget Schlitterbahn! I don’t recall putting on much sunscreen growing up. I can’t blame this on my parents. I’m sure I didn’t want to wear it anymore than I wanted to take my medicine -which explains why I kept taking antibiotics over and over again because they weren’t working- I wasn’t taking all of them. Nevertheless, I remember going to a fancy makeup counter at the mall at 17 and being told I had sun damage, dry skin, and a wrinkle under my eye already. Seriously, 17. I have worn eye cream every day since but I can’t say that I was great about wearing sunscreen until the melanoma scare.

    Our culture promotes the idea that tan is beautiful. It makes you look thinner, more fit, more attractive. Who wants to be pasty white? We can call it milky white or peaches and cream to make it seem more appealing but I wanted to be tan like the pretty girls at the pool and the gym and in the magazines.  Later on I realized that most of these bronze tanned, white teethed, blonde bombshells were not naturally blonde. They had more melanin in their skin and could handle more UV rays without damage. They didn’t have as many of the risk factors above either. Why did I want so badly to be something that I was not? Why could I not embrace my uniqueness?

    It was through this experience that I began to appreciate my differences as a redhead and to take care of what I came to learn were a few of my assets: Many women worldwide, especially in the Autumn season, color their hair the color God gave me at birth. When I was a little girl, my Nana use to take me to the salon and have her hair color matched to mine. What a compliment! I notice more and more people around me wearing color contacts. I was blessed with colorful light eyes. Though I did much damage to my skin the first quarter of my life, I hope that wearing sunscreen and staying out of the sun from my mid 20s on will profit me less wrinkles, age spots, and damage as I age, hopefully gracefully.  And when I think I must look tanned, I get a spray tan.

    The pamphlets at the dermatologists office say that 90% of the sun damage we accrue in life occurs before age 18. That is a startling figure. Those of you with young redheads in your life, help them embrace their differences and encourage them to protect their skin, eyes, and hair. They will thank you for it when they are older and you may just protect them from skin cancer.

    Here are a few suggestions for protecting yourself from sun damage:

    **note that it is important to get some sun exposure ~ (walking to and from you car counts) to get vitamin D  

    -stay out of the sun between the hours of 10am and 3pm when UV exposure is greatest

    -wear sunscreen- check your SPF, look for UVA and UVB protection, wear water resistant if swimming or sweating, apply generously, and ideally 20 minutes before exposure, reapply

    -wear a hat

    -wear sunglasses

    -cover up- wear light loose fitting clothing when possible to avoid over exposure

    -stay hydrated

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    One Response to My skin cancer story

    1. I, too, feel your pain. Over the years my skin has developed a better resistance to sun, but it’s because of very careful intentions on my part, namely, lots of sun screen. I usually slather myself with SPF 15 or greater when I go outside if I’m going to be out for more than 30 minutes; 30 or greater if it will an extended trip to the great outdoors.

      Last year I decided I wanted to be tan. Both of my best friends tan so easily and I was tired of being the whitest girl in the picture. I went to a tanning bed, but only every other day and didn’t stay in longer than 10 minutes, ever. I was careful and never burned. But, the fear crept back in and I stopped going this year. I accept my pale skin and love the bronzers in my make-up to help me have a healthy glow without skin damage.

      I had two major burns when I was a child where I was blistered and it was so painful. I’ve had one extreme sunburn/sun-poisoning as an adult. I am much more careful now and while I have tons of freckles (which I know are little reminders of sun damage), I’ve not developed any moles. I am like you, naturally light hair (reddish blond), light eyes, light skin – I could be a vampire without question in the winter! 🙂

      Thanks for your post and the reminder of how careful you must be as we approach the summer months. There are so many options now to be tan (spray on, etc…) that protecting ourselves from sun damage should be a “no brainer”. I slather my son up anytime he steps outdoors because he did inherit his mama’s fair skin rather than his father’s more olive complexion. Then again, with the Twilight rage amongst us, pale could be in as we speak. 🙂

      This is such a great thing to keep people aware of as summer is here. I may piggy back on your warning and connect a link to your blog on mine to give people a “reality check”.

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