Sun protection has always been important to Sara Block. Since she was a kid, she would lather on the sunscreen and do her best to avoid the sun’s harsh rays.
Because of this, she was understandably shocked to be told that a mole on her upper arm was melanoma. She was even more surprised to hear that the chemicals in the sunscreen she was using could have contributed to the development of her melanoma.
This is Sara’s story.
When and how were you first diagnosed with melanoma?
I was living in Wisconsin and one summer day in July of 2003, my mom was putting suntan lotion on my back and noticed a really black, very small, and indented mole on the upper area of my left arm. I was 21 years old at the time of my diagnosis. I made an appointment with my primary physician to have him look at my mole and to remove it. I got the results back and it was a melanoma skin cancer. It was caught at a really early stage so all I needed was a second cutting. The second big cutting had a clean margin with no cancer cells. I went to a dermatologist every six months for 5 years to have my moles checked, then I graduated to once a year. I have had a lot of moles removed since my diagnosis but all have been melanoma free. I am now 37 years old.
How did your diagnosis change your life?
The way I think about how to be safe in the sun is what has changed my life. I think of alternative ways to stay safe in the sun that minimize the usage of sunscreen. I wear a lot more hats than I used too to protect my face, neck and scalp. I seek shade more often.
What would you say was the most impactful experience of your battle with melanoma?
When I was diagnosed with Melanoma, rashguards weren’t popular for adults or trendy at the time. When I attended a camp convention at a conference center, camp counselors didn’t stare at me when I wore my rashguard and swim shorts to the pool at the conference center. They were more accepting of how I looked. When a college reunion was happening that same weekend the women that were about 30 to 40 years old stared at me wearing my rashguard. I didn’t care that they were staring at me because I knew I was being safe in the sun and my personality allows me to think that way. I felt proud to be me!
What would you most like people to know about yourself?
Even though I live in sunny Florida and have had a melanoma mole removed, I can still enjoy an active lifestyle of swimming laps in the pool, beachcombing, taking walks on the beach, snorkeling, and walking while I wear my sun protection clothing.
What is your greatest source of strength and/or inspiration?
My greatest source of strength would be my positive personality and my patience. A lot of my family members, coworkers and bosses comment on my positivity and my patience level.
How important was sun protection to you prior to your diagnosis?
I always have put on a lot of suntan lotion and wore a hat in the sun. I never thought at the time that certain chemicals in sunscreen could cause melanoma alongside with how much sun exposure I had and genetics.
Did your diagnosis change your perspective on the importance of sun protection?
Yes. I try to wear sunscreen with less chemicals in it, I wear sunglasses, rashguards and sun capris.
What are some of your favorite ways to stay sun safe?
I wear UV Skinz sun protective clothing such as hooded zip swim shirts, swim shorts, swim capris, long-sleeved rashguards, short-sleeved rashguards, and sun pants. I also wear a hat with a flap to cover my neck, sunscreen, and sunglasses. I also use scalp sunscreen and wear my hooded zip-up swim jacket when I walk the beach or swim laps in the pool. I try to find and wear sunscreens that have fewer chemicals in them.
Is there an inspirational quote or song that keeps you moving forward and gives you strength in your life?
An inspirational quote that keeps me going is a quote that one of my superiors put at the bottom of an email:
“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think”. Author unknown.
A song by Miley Cyrus, The Climb, also keeps me moving forward and gives me strength in life. Whatever changes in my life that are thrown at me “may knock me down but I am not breaking” (A line from Miley Cyrus, The Climb.), I find a different way to cope with what has changed and find a new normal in life. (Including the unexpected death of my older brother 1 yr prior to my diagnosis.)
What is the best advice you can give to someone who thinks that skin cancer won’t happen to them?
Pale skin can save your life. Keeping your skin healthy can also save your life in the long run. Life is so precious and short sometimes, you should protect and try hard to prevent skin cancer from happening. But sometimes you try really hard to protect yourself and things do happen. Protect your skin at an early age and your skin will love you at an older stage of your life.
Final thoughts and any additional info you want to be share?
Sometimes I don’t think of myself as a Melanoma survivor because mine was diagnosed at such an early stage that I didn’t have to go through chemo and radiation like some people. But then again, it is a form of cancer that I beat and face and deal with positively every day! My heart goes out to those who have battled melanoma through chemo, radiation, to families who have had a loved one die from melanoma. I also wear “Melanoma Sucks” T-shirts and skin cancer survivor t-shirts. They spark a lot of different conversations about other people’s melanoma stories when I least expect them. Plus, since I am younger than most people who get melanoma, it surprises people when I wear my melanoma sucks t-shirts and show them my scar!
Disclaimer: There is no concrete medical evidence that sunscreen can contribute to skin cancer. However, many experts say that the chemicals in many sunscreens can be very toxic and cause damage that has not been studied or fully understood. It is recommended to cover up as much as possible with UV protective clothing and avoid peak UV hours, rather than lather on chemical sunscreen.