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 lead 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 concern over 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. 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.