I come from a long line of beach lovers. Each summer my grandparents would rent a huge oceanfront house at the Jersey shore for the immediate family. Unless it was raining, my sister and I were on the beach. My mother and grandmother both burned easily, so we were trained at a young age to apply sunscreen before heading outside.
No one wanted to get sunburn, but the danger of exposure to UV rays wasn’t common knowledge. We wore sunscreen at the beach or if we visited an amusement park for the day, but not if we were going to play outside. Sun-safe clothing wasn’t approved until 1992, so we wore t-shirts to prevent sunburn. Despite using the best precautions of the day, I ended up with a deep, golden tan every summer.
I continued to use sunscreen, but only sporadically, into my adulthood – and ended up with some blistery sunburns as a result.
Fast forward to 2012. I had a pink spot on my back that was itchy, but I figured it wasn’t anything to worry about. It kept bothering me and eventually I scratched it open. My husband examined the spot and suggested I have it looked at since it had been bothering me for so long. I still didn’t think much of it as it wasn’t a dark, misshapen mole; consequently, I dragged my feet about making a dermatology appointment. I finally saw the dermatologist who biopsied the spot, while assuring me that it didn’t appear to be anything.
When the doctor called with the pathology report, I was dumbfounded. I had melanoma. Hadn’t he told me just a few days before it was probably nothing?? It turns out that I had amelanotic melanoma, a melanoma without the traditional dark color. It is often misdiagnosed. The doctor apologized profusely and with concern in his voice said, “If you were my daughter or my wife, I would tell you to go see Dr. Venna at The Melanoma Center at The Washington Hospital Center. He got me in to see Dr. Venna immediately. I was terrified.
A few weeks later, I was laying on an operating room table while the surgeon removed a large football-shaped piece from my upper back. Fortunately, the melanoma was caught at stage T1a, an early stage of melanoma that hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes. My sloppy sunscreen habits were now a thing of the past and I began exploring the benefits of sun-safe clothing.
Recently I had some new twists added to my skin cancer journey. At a routine check-up, Dr. Venna found a mole that looked suspicious. The biopsy revealed no active melanoma, but the spot had to come off before it evolved into melanoma. Seventeen days after I had the suspicious spot removed, I had a kidney transplant and will be immunosuppressed for the rest of my life. One of the side effects of immunosuppressing drugs is that I am now at up to a 100-fold higher risk of developing skin cancer than the general population.
I continue to take my skin care very seriously. I try to avoid the midday sun and wear a sun-safe hat, shirt, capris/leggings, and sunscreen nearly every time I go outdoors. I also wear a sun-safe jacket when driving or riding in a car.
While I have an extremely high risk of skin cancer because of the transplant medications and my previous history of melanoma, ANYONE can get skin cancer. I used to work with a woman whose elementary-aged daughter had melanoma on the back of her leg – and the melanoma was only identified and removed because the mother pressured the dermatologist to perform a biopsy. He didn’t believe that a young child could possibly have melanoma. Even if you don’t spend much time outside, you are still exposed to harmful UV rays – the latest spot I had removed was on my left arm which was exposed every time I drove a car while not taking appropriate sun-safe precautions.
I know I am one of the lucky ones. I thank God that my husband continued to prod me to go see the doctor or my story may have ended quite differently.
I encourage you to protect yourself against the dangers of UV rays and have yearly full-body skin checks – your life could depend on it.