I was first diagnosed with skin cancer at age 17. Now, 10 years later, I continue to have unhealthy-looking moles cut from my body. In fact, I had a suspicious-looking mole removed just yesterday. This mole was cut from the center of my chest in a spot completely visible to the world — a small sampling of the dozens of similar scars that adorn the rest of my young body.
Shortly after my 17th birthday, my dad noticed a small, raised, black dot on my left forearm. He thought it looked strange and asked me if it had been there for long. I couldn't tell him when it popped up but I did remember thinking it looked awfully dark a few weeks earlier. He took me into the doctor a few days later and requested the mole be removed from my arm.
Just a couple days later I was called and told my mole came back as melanoma. The following years were dark and destructive. Melanoma killed my young sprit. It turned my body and mind inside out and it stripped me of my confidence and self-love. It haunted me. For 10 long years it has clung to my side like a shadow and it will never go away. The appointments, the scars, the days waiting for the all-clear call — they are my life forever.
In my mind, pale was ugly.
During my pre-melanoma years I basked in the sun at the beach. And despite living near the beach, my friends and I also had an addiction to indoor tanning. I remember feeling almost euphoric after a session in the tanning bed. My friends and I would head to the tanning salon every other day when we first signed up, eventually working our way up to daily visits.
At 16, the tanning salon was almost a hangout. Every time you went you were sure to see dozens of girls from your class seeking the same dark orange-coffee skin color I was craving. I spent the winter and sophomore year of high school bronzed and beautiful as if I had spent the winter in the Caribbean.
I knew at the time — the way teenage girls know things in complete certainly — that tanning had a positive (yes, positive) effect on my life. I knew that being tan would dry out my skin, which in turn would help keep my acne-prone face clear. I knew that tan was "pretty." I never felt like tanning could hurt me. In my mind having a tanning bed tan only made me more beautiful and confident. In my mind, pale was ugly.
The years following my diagnosis were packed with appointments, needles, cuts, stitches, and scars. So many moles and freckles were cut from my body in every possible place. I sometimes got the call that the moles were benign and I sometimes got the call that the moles had precancerous cells within them.
I am ashamed to admit that sometimes after these calls I would get so mad at my body I would actually go to a tanning bed. I would lay in the glow of the bed, tears welling in my eyes and will my body to turn against me. I dare you.
Melanoma killed my young sprit. It turned my body and mind inside out and it stripped me of my confidence and self-love. It haunted me.
It took me a long time to grow up, to move forward from melanoma. The cancer was gone, but the heartache it caused me lingered and I was too young to deal with my situation. My breaking point came about five years ago during a routine full body check, an appointment I have every three months to screen me for new and potentially harmful moles. My dermatologist removed a mole from my breast at that appointment.
After having so many moles cut off me, it would seem one more didn't matter but it was all I had been holding on to those years. It was the only part of my body without a scar. It was the only place left. Leaving that appointment I cried harder than I ever had and then I wiped my tears and dedicated my heart to living the safe way, to being happy and healthy.
I decided to accept — not resent — that for the rest of my days this will be my reality. I started talking more about sun safety, I never went to another tanning bed again, and I began taking care of my body, which in turn took care of my soul.
Today, at 27, I never leave the house without sunscreen on my face. I never go to the beach or swim in a pool without SPF 30 or higher and I get in arguments with those beach-goers who claim they don't "need" sunscreen. I am positive that my skin doesn't need a tan to be beautiful because the reality is I still deal with melanoma every day. I have learned over the years that I will likely have skin cancer again.
I collect more scars each year, but that is finally OK with me. It is a symbol that I am still around.