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