For years if someone told me to pick the place I’d most like to spend my time I’d always say, “in the sun on the beach.” To me perfection is being stretched out on a cushioned lounge chair, chilly coastal waters threatening my spot as the tide rolls in, with a stack of books at my side. In fact, as I write this, I’m smiling. Yes, I love the sun and surf that much.
Then yesterday my dermatologist called. The changing mole we’d both assumed was fine but had removed anyway isn’t in fact fine. It’s melanoma. Yes, it was caught early on, and yes, I will be fine after a deeper excision that will confirm it’s not spread, but as my doctor wished me a good weekend (okay, buddy) he said, “It’s a good thing you noticed it. If this has been 6 months down the line, you wouldn’t have been so lucky.”
In the past I’ve come across skin cancer stories on WebMD or CNN. Some articles cite young people who, like me, are lucky. Others talk of the less fortunate. All mention the dangers of the sun. Whenever I read those pieces I’d come up with a caveat to explain away the melanoma. “Oh well I’m sure she went tanning when she was a teenager,” I’d tell myself. Or even, “He clearly doesn’t wear sunblock.” It’s a coping mechanism, of course—the “that can’t happen to me” approach.
But, guys, it can.
Here’s my history: I’m 32-years-old, I’ve never been to a tanning salon, and although I spent summers in the sun as a kid I’ve always—always—been vigilant about putting on sunscreen. I wear a 15 SPF on my face every day, even though in Seattle the sun is pretty rare. Thanks to my grandfather’s Sicilian heritage my pale, olive-tinged skin is more likely to darken in the summer than turn red. In fact, I can think of only one burn in my life that turned crispy and no, I’ve never had sun poisoning. Last but not least, although cancer (breast, leukemia, non-hodgkins lymphoma) is prevalent on my dad’s side no one has had melanoma in my family. Ever.
This morning when I couldn’t sleep I spent some time on the Internet researching skin cancer. The first link I came across was for this article, somewhat ironically published earlier this week, which explains that the number of melanomas found among women under 40-years-old increased by more than eightfold between the 1970s and 2000s. But the news isn’t all bad. Because people are more aware of their skin now there’s been a decline in the number of deep melanomas, which are harder to treat.
So here’s my plea: check your own skin as well as that of your partner’s. You know yourself best and if something looks odd, get it checked out. I’m glad I did, because if I hadn’t mentioned to my dermatologist that a mole I’d had my entire life was losing its even border and looking like a splotch of paint, well… I don’t want to think about that.
As for me, I’ll never stop reading by the ocean or the pool but from now on, in order for the sun to reach me, it will have to get through an umbrella and an SPF of 60 first.