Woman receiving startling news from her doctor over the phone

How Marti Saved Me: My Melanoma Story

I made what could have been the simplest but most important decision of my life in 2007. A quick phone call, a few brief words, and I decided I was done killing myself. Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized I was well on my way to dying from skin cancer. For 15 years, I had been readying my skin, priming it, and creating the ideal conditions for the development of melanoma and basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. I had spent a shameful amount of time and money laying out in the sun and visiting salons to achieve a tan. That afternoon, I was over all of it--just like that.

Sun bathing that led to burns

The highly desirable tanned skin of the 90s was one of my goals--that and big hair. I, however, have fair skin (freckled from my preteen sunburns), reddish blonde hair, and green eyes. Tan skin was not simple for me to achieve. I spent weekends and afternoons after school as a girl in my early teens laying out in my backyard slathered in baby oil and any other tanning oil I had convinced my mother to buy. In my mind’s eye, I was “tanning.” In reality, I was actually burning. My skin became pink then red. The redness faded away quickly, and I yearned even more for the perfect and lasting tan. The pressure to not have pale skin during high school led me to tanning salons once I graduated and had my own money to spend.

Tanning beds year round

In 1992, I bought my first visits at a local salon. I was a college freshman and made absolutely certain I fit 20-minute visits to the salon into my afternoons following classes and before work. My visits began very slowly. I was cautioned, ironically enough, by the salon owner to be careful not to burn. At first, laying 8 to 10 minutes allowed me to feel I had heated up and received “some color.” My skin became quickly accustomed to the ultraviolet light, and I increased my visits from around 10 minutes to the maximum of 20. Not only did I increase the time in the bed, I also visited the salon more frequently over the months. Eventually, I was laying 3 or 4 times weekly from February to October. When I received the call from my family doctor in 2007, I was laying in tanning beds nearly year round at least 3 times a week. For all the effort I was putting into achieving a tan, my skin only turned a deep reddish tan and faded fairly quickly. I didn’t realize, but I was damaging my skin over and over.

Not performing skin checks

During these years, I never once performed skin checks on myself. I was, and still am, covered with freckles and “sun spots.” I have several cherry angiomas, several clear to light brown moles, and numerous scars from mosquito bites and a raging case of chickenpox as a sixth grader. Checking myself for irregularly shaped moles or changes in my skin never occurred to me. I was much more concerned with whether or not my skin was dark enough compared to others.

Friend’s detection of a mole

One afternoon in the spring of 2007, my best friend, Marti, and I were talking outside my house. At some point in the conversation, she noticed a strange mole on my upper arm. It wasn’t quite round and wasn’t exactly raised all the way around. If anything, it resembled a horseshoe. Smaller than half of my pinky nail, I couldn’t say that I had even realized it was there. As I said, when I did examine my skin, it was to ensure that I was getting my money’s worth at the tanning salon. This little mole was not on my radar.

At Marti’s insistence, I made an appointment to have the spot checked. My family doctor was immediately suspicious. I can still recall his furrowed brow and the weight in his words as he muttered, “Yeah, we’re going to get that off there.”

The next week was a blur. I couldn’t tell you exactly what I did in the week following that visit, but, astonishingly, I was still not concerned. Amazing, isn’t it? I don’t recall worrying. I’m not sure I even researched possible diagnoses. Days came and went, I cared for my children, I went to and from my classroom never varying from my routine. Yes, I do believe I visited the tanning bed a time or two. After all, it was early spring. Warm weather was around the corner.

Melanoma diagnosis

Melanoma. That was the only word I heard during that phone call in 2007. I couldn’t tell you what I did in the week waiting on the call, but I can tell you I was standing in the kitchen when I got the call. I can tell you I looked at my kids playing on the floor in front of me while The Wiggles played in the background. I can also tell you that my fingers felt numb while I fumbled for an ink pen, pencil, or crayon--anything--to write down the day and time for my surgery by a dermatologist. My doctor had already made the surgery appointment for me before he ever called me that day. I can, without a doubt, tell you I never set foot in a tanning bed after that day.

I had melanoma.

Sunscreen was the new tanning lotion

That little spot had appeared, morphed, and developed into melanoma right there on my skin. Every day I went without sunscreen while I put it on my kids, every day I laid my head back in the tanning bed to rest and roast, every day I failed to check my own skin had led to this moment. My best friend? She stopped me from killing myself. Marti saved me.

Ten years later, I have not had a recurrence of melanoma. My skin, however, has continued to suffer the consequences of my refusal to be proactive with sun protection. I have had Mohs surgery for basal cell carcinoma multiple times, and cryotherapy is a fairly regular part of my dermatologist visits. Efudex, a topical chemotherapy is now a yearly treatment to help my battle the precancerous spots that rise to the surface time and time again on my chest and face.

I worked so hard for this damage. I paid big bucks for years, but it’s nothing compared to the price I am paying now and will continue to pay for years to come.

A tan was never worth it.

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