Skin cancer has been my teacher since 2007. I am enrolled in a class from which I can’t seem to graduate. I didn’t sign up for this course, but I am completely immersed in it. I follow a challenging syllabus, do my homework, have exams, and, once a year, face some agonizing finals. Fingers snapping in front of my day-dreamy eyes, skin cancer keeps my attention. I have to admit, though, my mind doesn’t wander far off topic since melanoma picked me up and gave me that first good shake. Truth be told, these lessons I’m learning from skin cancer are some pretty strong ones. Prior to my melanoma diagnosis, I considered myself ready for the world. That was far from the case.
Everything I ever really needed to know about life, I have learned from skin cancer.
1. Make good decisions
You would think it goes without saying. Yeah…no. I didn’t make smart decisions about the sun. I chose to ignore all the advertisements for sunscreen and, time and again, stepped boldly into a tanning bed after facing that not-so-subtle warning label. Skin cancer put my health into proper perspective for me.
2. Be kind
Skin cancer stinks. I won’t mince words. There is a laundry list of struggles that skin cancer patients face ranging from anxiety to financial burdens. The treatments themselves are overwhelming and can consume your each and every thought. A little kindness goes a long way. Often times, a few words of advice and a willing ear are all it takes to make a world of difference to someone coming to terms with the impact of skin cancer.
3. Dream big
It’s true that we aren’t promised tomorrow. Nothing sears that into your brain like a cancer diagnosis. Make plans. Have those parties. Take the trip you have been putting off, and dive into writing that novel. The fear of recurrence can be a crushing weight on your shoulders, but making a set of goals and staying focused can help to relieve some of that angst.
4. Be alert
I have always told my children and my third graders to be alert. Be aware of your surroundings. Little did I know that I needed to bring that advice even closer to home. I wasn’t in the least conscious of the changes taking place in my skin. The melanoma on my arm was a spot smaller than the eraser end of a No.2 pencil and was spotted by my best friend. I was oblivious to the fact that it had begun to change shape and exhibited several of the warning signs for skin cancer. My diagnosis has changed that entirely. I am hyperaware. Skin checks are routine now, and I am able to readily point out areas of concern to my dermatologist at each six-month skin check.
5. Share with others
Share your story, that is. Following my melanoma diagnosis, I had three Mohs surgeries for basal cell carcinoma. In addition, I have been treated for precancerous spots via cryosurgery and Efudex, a topical chemotherapy. This summer, during my fourth round of Efudex, I decided to share my experience through a video. Unsteady hands, a shaky voice, and many, many false starts later, I posted it. Social media is a double-edged sword. It can be a powerful and positive tool, or it can beat you down and stomp on your heart. Sharing my story and advocating for sun safety was too important to worry about the beating down and stomping. The response to the video was overwhelmingly positive. Very quickly, I began to receive comments and messages from people who had experienced the difficulty of the same treatment or had questions and been leery of asking them. Additionally, I got many messages from viewers who were horrified at the role tanning had played in my multiple skin cancer diagnoses. That spur-of-the-moment decision to share my thoughts resulted in several people making the decision to stop tanning or to start using sunscreen regularly. Sharing–there’s so much to be said for it.
I am resigned to the fact that I will always be in this class, taking notes, and being watched like a hawk by skin cancer. I can’t drop the class. The instructor and I have an understanding after all these years, however. I won’t forget the lessons I have learned, and skin cancer promises to never let me.