I was 24 when I was diagnosed with superficial spreading melanoma on my right leg.
Looking back, it’s strange to think how time has made me so comfortable with the topic. I felt so embarrassed initially, like I had done something wrong. A skin cancer diagnosis often comes with stigma and questions, especially when you’re diagnosed at such a young age— didn’t you wear sunscreen? Were you outside a lot as a child? Have you ever been in a tanning bed? The reality is that melanoma is reaching more people at a younger age. Incidents among children, adolescents, and young adults are up 250% over the past 4 decades.
In honor of Melanoma Awareness Month, I’m sharing my personal story. A story from someone who never, ever, thought this would happen to her. I hope it will encourage even one person to visit their dermatologist for a screening. Here goes…
In October 2013, I noticed a funny black spot on my arm. I was joking about how bizarre it looked with a coworker, who encouraged me to visit a dermatologist and have it checked out. This was during the funny phase of post-college life, when you have the responsibilities of an adult, but for some reason still haven’t moved on from your childhood doctors. After researching for days, I finally found a dermatologist and scheduled my appointment to check out the mysterious black spot.
In addition to the spot on my arm, the dermatologist noticed a small birthmark on my leg that he suggested we check out. He took a small biopsy, and assured me it was likely nothing.
Two weeks later I got a phone call— the mysterious black spot on my arm was fine! Relief! I exhaled with about 3 seconds of joy before my dermatologist asked that I come back to talk about the birthmark on my leg. The one he had assured me was likely nothing.
It’s hard to recall the exact details of that second visit. I don’t remember much about the conversation, only walking out with two pieces of paper in my hand, lab results confirming that the spot on my leg was Superficial Spreading Melanoma, and an appointment confirmation from the plastic surgeon who would be removing the tumor from my leg the following week.
Though I had never heard of the disease until that day, Superficial Spreading Melanoma is the most common of all skin cancers, and also the type most commonly found in young people. Like all skin cancers, it is the least invasive when caught and treated early.
My treatment plan was simple— remove the tumor as quickly as possible and then schedule a series of follow up appointments with specialists to confirm the melanoma had not grown into the deeper layers of my skin or spread to any other parts of my body.
Those were scary days. I was too afraid to open up to my coworkers or friends about what was happening with me, not wanting them to worry or treat me any differently. The combination of waiting for test results, meanwhile pretending everything was fine, was draining. I was young and it was the first time I navigated doctors and a scary health issue alone. Looking back now, I wish I had been more open with the people around me. They could have helped me, consoled me, and made it less scary.
I’m grateful to say that after an emotional rollercoaster of doctors appointments, blood work, and physical exams, I was in the clear. 100% melanoma free.
But my journey isn’t entirely over, nor will it ever be. I have to be careful for the rest of my life. I have strict instructions to not only wear SPF every day, but to stay out of the sun entirely. This doesn’t just mean avoiding sunbathing at the beach, but any time I am outdoors. I’m lucky to have a supportive fiancé who carries a 10 pound beach cabana around with us to pool parties all summer and negotiates with waiters to get the shadiest tables at our favorite outdoor restaurants. Beyond that, I return to my dermatologist every 6 months for a full skin cancer screening and take a Chlorophyll pill every day to fight free radicals.
To say I am lucky is a massive understatement. In the scheme of the many terrible illnesses that can affect a person, I am thankful that mine was caught and treated without major impact. Many others are not so lucky and melanoma can be fatal. I encourage everyone reading this to take 5 minutes, right now, to schedule a skin cancer screening with their dermatologist. If you think you’re too young, you’re not.
What can you do to prevent skin cancer:
1. Visit a dermatologist at least once a year for skin cancer screenings. ZocDoc is a great resource to find a dermatologist in your area if you do not already have one.
2. Wear SPF, every single day!
3. Stay out of the sun, and protect yourself with hats and UPF clothing.