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I Blame Myself for Getting Skin Cancer

 Warning: This post contains graphic images that might disturb some readers. 

Young woman Relaxing in a poolI know, it’s a very bold statement to make — to blame myself for cancer. Let me explain …

I’ve been going to the dermatologist for yearly check ups since I was a teenager. I’ve had a few moles removed, but they were all benign. My mom had a history of basil cell carcinoma, which I was aware of — that being why I started going. I went for a regular check up in January of 2014 and everything looked okay. Months went by and I noticed this mole on my right, upper arm that just didn’t look right. It was only about the size of a pencil eraser, but its appearance just kept changing so quickly.

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This is what melanoma can look like. This is the mole that I thought looked suspicious.

I just had this gut feeling that something was wrong, so I made an appointment. I went in and my dermatologist said it did look a little funny, so she recommended testing it.

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A week went by and I hadn’t heard anything — I was beginning to get anxious, as normally they call back within a couple days. One day, I got out of the shower and had a voicemail and missed call. The voicemail was my dermatologists telling me to give her a call back as soon as possible. My stomach dropped. I knew, without her having to tell me, that I had skin cancer. Sure enough, I called her back and she let me know that I had melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer. I wanted to cry, but at the same time, I took a giant breath and figured it was just a tiny mole, 1 mm. It could have been a lot worse if I waited any longer.

I was told surgery would be necessary to fully remove it, so I scheduled an appointment for two weeks later — the soonest they could get me in. I went in, sat down with the doctor and asked a few questions. He mentioned that he doesn’t see too many people as young as me with melanoma. He also was curious about the white spots around the cancer, which you can see in the image below. It apparently is just skin damage from all the sun exposure — another reason to wear sunscreen. He then began to draw on me where the incision would be placed.

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Day of surgery : July 23, 2014.

I was shocked at how big the incision was. I was expecting like quarter size! I said, “Uhhh … why do you have to take out so much?” He explained to me that they mark about 1 cm outside the mole, then three times the size of that to be sure to remove all of the cancer. As well, they must make a long incision to avoid what they call, “dog ears” (where the ends pucker up). He then told me I’d have to be a couch potato for a few days, avoid lifting anything for a few weeks, and for sure avoid exercise for a suggested six weeks. This is when I realized that it was a tad bigger deal than I initially thought. I had a workout class the next morning at 8 a.m. I planned on going to! I mean, yeah, I knew I’d be having surgery, but I didn’t know it’d be like that. It was a tiny mole!

I went in for surgery. I was under local anesthetic and looked away the whole time (although I could feel the pulling and tugging towards the end when they were stitching me up). The surgery took about an hour and then I was free to go, leaving with instructions on how to care for my 40 stitches.

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The day after surgery.

Again, after the surgery, I pretty much couldn’t do anything. I spent over a month having my boyfriend, friends, family and everyone else carry my things for me as to avoid the stitches pulling out. It was not fun. It was the dog days of summer (which is my favorite season), and I was stuck hiding from the sun and avoiding any and all sleeveless shirts (as not to gross anyone out — including myself).

One following surgery.

One week following surgery.

Almost 3 weeks after surgery.

Almost three weeks after surgery.

The stitches were removed several weeks later, and a follow-up visit three months later took place (where I actually ended up having a suspicious mole on my back removed, but it was benign. Thank God!).

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Right after the stitches were removed.

Here is my scar over about a 2 month period.

Here is my scar over about a two-month period after the stitches were removed.

So, now I’ll explain to you why I blame myself. I watch the news, I watch Dr. Oz, The Doctors, documentaries, read articles — I knew about skin cancer and I knew how to prevent it. I chose not to. Since I was 15 years old, I tanned in tanning beds. In high school, I would sometimes go twice a day. I was addicted. Once I got out of high school, I went about once a week, not including the many days lying out in the sun in the summer without sunscreen. It was just a part of my life.

Some of you may judge what I’m about to say, but I felt that being tan overruled the possibility of skin cancer. I knew I might get skin cancer; it was probable, but it wasn’t going to stop me. This actually wasn’t one of those cliche moments where I thought it would never happen to me. I knew it would probably happen to me.

I am 23 years old and now a “cancer survivor” — a survivor of a cancer I could have avoided. I now have to go see the dermatologists every three months for the next three years, then every six months after that. This is not over. I will spend the rest of my life knowing that it can and will likely come back. Everyone’s heard horror stories of melanoma, but the fact is, it’s not going to stop people. It didn’t stop me and my story probably won’t even stop many who read this.

The truth is, your skin is beautiful as is. I had to learn that the hard way. Like we’ve been saying this whole week on FBG, the most attractive thing about a woman is being confident in her own skin. This was the first summer in years where I didn’t lay out at the pool on a weekly basis and the first fall where I didn’t tan in a tanning bed to maintain that summer glow. And guess what? I love my actual skin color. I forgot what it even looked like!

I am now stuck with a giant scar on my right arm. On my wedding day, that scar will be there for everyone to see and I am the only one to blame. I will be constantly be thinking about it every time I wear a sleeveless top or a cute strapless dress for a night out. I am not ashamed of my scar, but let’s be honest, it’s not the most attractive thing in the world. People stare at it and I can tell they want to ask what happened. And if they do, I will be more than happy to answer. It’s a story everyone needs to hear.

Not all cancers are preventable, of course, but mine was. So, please go see your dermatologists, ladies and gentlemen! Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the world. If your gut is telling you something isn’t right (as mine was), it’s probably right.

We try and eat healthy, exercise, take care of our hair, eyes, nails, but yet many of us don’t take care of our biggest organ of all — our skin!

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This is what my scar looks like three months later.

I know my story won’t affect many, as I had heard many stories that didn’t change my mind, but I hope that many of you will think twice about what’s really important life. Be smart and learn from others’ mistakes, so you don’t end up making them yourself. —Erika

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13 Comments
  1. Thank you for sharing this. I too used to tan on a regular basis and even worked at a tanning salon for about a year in high school. I stopped tanning after I stopped working at a salon for the reasons you mentioned above but I do miss it sometimes. Tanning is a nice way to relax and I love having a tan look to my skin, but it’s not worth the price you could end up paying.

  2. Tish says:

    Dear Lord woman I’m glad you’re okay! Thank you for sharing your story. You never know who you’ll touch. I know for sure I’ll be wearing more body sunscreen now! Wishing you good health from here on out!

  3. Kimberley says:

    Erika, such a great article as I too blame myself for the constant (every six months) removal of luckily for me only BCC’s, however each one that gets cut out seems to be bigger than the last. So far the count is at 7 surgical removals and I’ve lost count of the ones that have been burnt off. My first being cut out at the age of 22, with the latest one being a lovely 15 cm scar on the top of the arm just below my shoulder, at the age of 44. The latest one was one I had had burnt off about 10 years ago, which didn’t go away and came back bigger and uglier than it originally was and really scared me, as how can something grow that big in only 10 years? I was like you and used sunbeds when I was younger as being pale, I loved the golden glow I could get from sunbeds that I didn’t get from the sun. Although when I had my first BCC cut out at 22 I was so conscious of staying out of the sun that I pretty much have for the last 20 years, but now I fear that all the damage has already been done and although I continue to be so careful in the sun, they still continue. I have to say I am never embarrassed about my scar as I make sure that anytime anyone asks me about it I tell them it’s from skin cancer in the hope that people will start to realise how important it is to take care of your skin. Once again thanks for sharing your story

  4. Kaylee says:

    Thank you for writing about your experience! I am also someone with a history of tanning and I have been thinking about seeing a dermatologist to have a few spots checked for a while now. Your article has inspired me to get it done asap!

  5. Jen says:

    I hate that tanning beds are even legal. I think a lot of women in our generation went when we were younger. I started going when I was 14 or 15- before I was really able, in my opinion now, to make an informed decision on the matter.

    I mean, if a 14 year old went into a store asking for a pack of cigarettes with a signed parental consent, it would still be illegal. How are tanning beds different??

    I actually developed vitiligo from over exposure to the “sun”, though I was never someone who went frequently. My face is spotted- much like your arm, but with smoother lines. Luckily, now that I don’t tan at all, I’m pale enough that the lack of pigment isn’t completely noticeable. However, it has spread to my eyebrow and lashes and my hair has went prematurely gray. I am only 30 and have to dye my hair and pencil in my eyebrows because they have streaks of stark white.

    I wish that, even if the fear of skin cancer didn’t scare these young girls away from this senseless activity, that the fear of vitiligo would. It isn’t pretty. I know the idea of getting cancer doesn’t seem like a big deal to a lot of young girls, either because of the reason that you touched upon- that some just never expect it to happen them- or simply because it’s a price they are willing to pay for temporary beauty. But for some of us, it is really, really temporary.

    It sucks that one of the very things that we used to make ourselves beautiful when we were younger can make us SO freakish looking as adults.

    DON’T DO IT, LADIES. JUST DON’T.

  6. Taralyn says:

    Thank you for sharing your story! This is such an important topic and more young people need the awareness!

  7. Michelle says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am a survivor of melanoma as well. Unlike you, there was never a history of skin cancer in our family and I didn’t ever think it would happen to me. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Now my daughter has to get annual checkups to be safe. I was only 30 years old when I was told I had melanoma. So scary! I know it is not a matter IF it reoccurs, it is WHEN! Terrifying. I cannot stress sunscreen, cover up, and stay out of the tanning beds enough to everyone.

  8. Your story did touch me! I, like you, also blame myself. Spending hours each week in a tanning bed or outside in the sun without a care in the world. And knowing better. I was diagnosed just recently-Oct 24, 2017- with stage 1 melanoma. I am sitting here typing with my stitches still fresh from my WLE just yesterday (11/10/17). It’s be a very emotional ride in which I have learned so much that I will pass along to my daughters, as well as everyone I know. Thank you for sharing your story. Its nice to know we are not alone. (41 yr old mom of two daughters, wife of 16 years, daughter, sister & friend) It can happen to anyone. That’s for sure

  9. Mel says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this . I’m going to repost on my Instagram !!

  10. Terry Wise says:

    My grandmother died from melanoma in the early 90s. When I was 40 I had a mole on my leg that was weird shaped and different colors. When it started bleeding my younger sister threatened to beat me up if I didn’t go to the doctor. A month before my 40th birthday my doctor called me and after he said the word melanoma I don’t remember anything. Like you I had a large piece of my right leg removed to make sure they got it all. They did, but there were the doctor visits for years after. I turn 60 in a week. A year and a half ago I went to the doctor for something else and after a ct scan they discovered a mass next to my right kidney. More scans, and a biopsy showed the melanoma had returned. From a mole less than a half inch in diameter to a 2 inch tumor. The part the doctors don’t get is how it took so long to show up. When I got the news I thought I was dead. Thankfully huge strides have been made in cancer research and cancer fighting drugs. I’m on a chemo with a new drug that is shrinking the tumor. It’s been almost a year and next week I find out if it’s gone or if the chemo continues. That tan isn’t worth it. My original doctor from 20 years ago told me something I’ve never forgotten….if your skin changes color, it’s been damaged. Doesn’t matter if it’s the sun or a tanning bed. That scar on my leg just shows me that I am stronger than what is trying to kill me…It will never win!

    1. Jenn says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Terry. Sending you the biggest and best vibes because, like you said, you are SO much stronger!

      —FBG Jenn

  11. Tracy says:

    Oh sweetie thanks for sharing! I’m 58 and my life has been spent in the sun and tanning beds too! I just found out I too have melanoma on my arm! I’m sure you will be fine now that you know! Much love to you!

  12. Nettie says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. Beat of luck to you!