A Melanoma Diagnosis: 4 Common Misconceptions
In my opinion, there are many common misconceptions about skin cancer, specifically melanoma. In fact, prior to being diagnosed with melanoma, I wasn’t even aware there were multiple types of skin cancer! I guess like any cancer, I assumed there were stages and “levels” but I had no idea how serious melanoma really was until the dermatologist called me to tell me my pathology report from a mole I had removed came back positive for malignant melanoma.
Is a melanoma diagnosis really that serious?
Being diagnosed with melanoma, I also found myself not taking it super seriously and sort of believing some of the common misconceptions. My mother is a breast cancer survivor, and my wide-excision surgery on my shoulder to remove said melanoma seemed hardly comparable to the treatment and chemotherapy that she went through.
Forced to understand the seriousness of melanoma
Quite literally five years to the day when I was diagnosed with stage IIA melanoma, I was in a routine follow up with my oncologist and showed her some lumps I had found underneath my skin. She became worried and immediately ordered a PET scan. Things really snowballed from there and I quickly found myself at the center of a stage IV cancer diagnosis - something that was far more serious and required treatment beyond shaving a mole or mark off my skin.
It was sometime during the midst of my cancer storm that I realized there was a lack of information about metastatic melanoma. We’re all aware that sunscreen is the first step in prevention - but what about all those times you didn’t use sunscreen? You can’t go back in time and reapply when you should have, and that UV radiation exposure from your past will catch up with you.
Four common misconceptions of a melanoma diagnosis:
I think it’s incredibly important that we’re aware of just how serious a melanoma diagnosis actually is.
1. Melanoma is “just” skin cancer.
This couldn’t be more false. Growing up as a competitive swimmer with a melanoma-mole at 24 years old, I was expecting to find another mole and/or mark on my skin again that would be malignant. What I didn’t expect was for it to spread to other very important organs in my body. But, it did. I went WEEKS massaging what I thought were muscle knots in my legs only to find out later that they were melanoma tumors. Melanoma is not JUST skin cancer.
2. Melanoma is rare and I won’t have to deal with it.
Maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to not deal with it, but being a proud millennial, I know our generation is the tanning bed generation. Although I never stepped foot in a tanning bed myself, I knew so many girls in high school and college that did. Because increased UV radiation exposure can cause melanoma, I think we’re just now starting to see the negative impact tanning beds have had. In fact, one session in a tanning bed can increase your odds of getting melanoma by 20%.1
3. A “base tan” is the safe way to avoid sunburns.
OH BOY, did I really believe this to be true when I was younger? I thought because I never burned, I was safe and not at risk for developing melanoma. Man, was I wrong. Any time the pigment on your skin changes color, it’s because it’s being damaged by UV rays. I learned this AFTER I was diagnosed. The only sure way to avoid a sunburn is to practice "safe sun".2
4. Once melanoma has spread to other organs, it’s considered a death sentence.
While I’m obviously not a medical expert, I can tell you my experience. Because of new treatment options, the mortality rate of melanoma has decreased 7% per year during 2013-2017 in people ages 20 to 64.3 I had melanoma in my heart, lungs and brain and underwent 14 infusions of immunotherapy and was able to successfully terminate treatment. I recognize that not everyone has the same response, but there IS hope for stage IV patients when there didn’t use to be. It’s not an easy fight, but thanks to advances in treatment, metastatic patients now have a fighting chance.
How well have your skin cancer diagnoses been explained to you?