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What I Wish I Knew Then: Skin Cancer Edition

Skin cancer and I were formally introduced in 2007.

Prior to March of that year, my life was inundated with skin cancer risks. Unbeknownst to me, I made my own bed, and, boy, did I quite literally lie in it.

My desire to tan led to my skin cancer

Over the last 16 years, I have given a lot of thought to the part I played in my skin cancer experience. While heredity plays a small role in my series of diagnoses, I exacerbated the problem with my choices beginning at a very early age. If I could turn back time, there are many things I would change about my relationship with the sun and tanning beds.

Looking back now, I know that my path to skin cancer surgeries, treatments, and dermatologist visits was paved in my preteen years. As insane as that may sound, it’s painfully true. At the age of 12, I was stretched out on a beach towel or in a lounge chair in direct sunlight, hoping my pale skin would somehow grow capable of featuring a glowing golden brown tan at the day’s end. I would move my towel or chair every half hour as the shade crept up on me. I chased that sunlight for hours until I became frustrated with the heat or the sun began to drop behind the treeline.

If the skin cancer wouldn't scare me, my wrinkled skin would have

Knowing now what my skin looks like from sun exposure, I don’t know that I would be as quick to chase those rays. I wish I had known at the age of 12 that I would be battling premature aging and a bevy of sun spots–age spots, as my grandmother lovingly called them. The threat of skin cancer wouldn’t have scared an invincible 12-year-old, but the idea of wrinkles and unsightly brown spots all over my hands, arms, and face might have made an impact.

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Didn't use sunscreen

I had no idea in my 20s that sunscreen would hold the answer to virtually all my future skin ills. As a child of the 80s, I was presented with more opportunities to use tanning accelerators in my young adult years than I was ever met with sunscreen sermons. Store shelves may have sported sunscreen displays, but they were never as colorful or enticing as the displays of super-hot accelerators and tropical-scented potions that promised the darkest of dark tans. As a tanning fiend, I was naturally drawn to them like a moth to a flame. Looking back now, I would gladly have opted for protection over the burns I received from using accelerators. My skin cancer scars remind me of the poor choices I made on a daily basis.

Tanning salons–my downfall

No one will ever know for sure if my melanoma was a direct result of the countless hours I spent in tanning beds, but my doctors assure me it was a contributing factor. I am ashamed now of all the years I visited tanning salons insisting on hot beds and new bulbs. A melanoma, three basals, a squamous, and several rounds of topical chemotherapy later, I am regretting every minute I lay there cooking my skin in the UV rays. If granted a do-over, I would never have stepped into my first tanning salon that August afternoon in 1992.

As it stands, I am a tanning addict–recovering, yes, but an addict nonetheless. The smell of tropically-scented, fruity lotions triggers the desire to feel the heat on my skin and probably always will. I would love to know if I could change the course of my life and bypass my skin cancer history if given the chance. I will never know, but I do know I would sidestep the things that brought me here.

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