Spring is here and summer will be upon us soon. Both are my favorite seasons, as I love to be outside taking in the fresh air and sunshine. For the past several years though, being outside has meant something different to me. I used to not think twice about going outdoors. I always applied sunscreen, but didn’t pay much attention to what protection it gave me. Going outside now is a whole different story and involves a lot more thinking.
Several years ago, about 17 to be exact, I was in college and enjoying the student life. I didn’t really think much about my skin, unless I had some acne on my face. My dad had always had issues with his skin pertaining to the amount of sun he was exposed to growing up and then into his adult life. I knew that at some point, I was going to have to ask my dermatologist about getting a full-body skin check.
The next time I was at her office visiting about other skin concerns, I asked her about getting a full-body skin check. She reviewed my file and talked to me about the family history I had written about on my form. We decided together that it wouldn’t hurt to have one done because if for nothing else, I would at least have a baseline to go by if any future moles or skin changes occurred.
When I came back a couple weeks later for the skin check, I was nervous. I knew that I would have to show parts of my body that I’m self-conscious about, but I also knew that a few minutes of me being pretty naked and embarrassed was better than having something concerning on my skin that could cause death. The skin check took about 15 minutes or so, with my dermatologist looking at my skin and a nurse documenting the placement and location of every mole I had on a chart of a body. My doctor also measured the diameter of any moles that were of a concerning size and the nurse added that to my body chart too. This was so that each time I had a skin check done, they could make sure that there were not any new moles or that any of them had changed in size.
Those 15 minutes of nakedness was worth it because that very day, I had my first mole biopsy done. I had two moles on the shin of my right leg that had been there for as long as I could remember. They were on the larger side for a mole, but I had never thought much about them. My doctor wanted to biopsy them just to be on the safe side. I’m so glad she did because those were the first two moles I ever had removed!
Ever since that appointment, I have gotten an annual full-body skin check. My current tally is 10 moles and areas of concern removed. Two times I’ve had areas biopsied and come back as the most common type of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma. When that happened, I then had to come back for my full-body skin check every six months instead of once a year. Basal cell carcinoma is completely curable, but can be disfiguring and costly if you don’t take care of it early. I have several scars from stitches and cauterizing, which is nothing compared to the disfigurement that some people face.
My scariest visit to the dermatologist just happened last month. I was in for my normal annual skin check and the doctor noticed a tiny spot on my arm that had a little bit of sheen to it. It literally was something I would have never noticed because it was so small and was skin colored. It was not a mole or freckle, so it was very hard to see. She was concerned and so she biopsied the area that day before I left the office. About five days later, I received a call from the office that the results had come back and it was melanoma.
I was devastated as I am so diligent about applying sunscreen and staying out of the sun whenever possible. I knew that melanoma essentially meant cancer, which is the scariest word I can think of. My mother passed away due to a cancerous brain tumor when I was 12, and although her death had nothing to do with skin cancer, having watched what she went through, the word cancer is super terrifying for me. The nurse told me what options I had as far as removing the area and I decided on the most aggressive, which was to surgically remove the shiny skin spot and the area all around it.
Once I decided on the small outpatient surgery, the nurse called me back and gave me more information about what the procedure would entail. It wouldn’t take long, but depending on the depth the cancer went into my skin, I would either have a small scar like all of the others on my body or a large one that could potentially be disfiguring. That wasn’t comforting at all, but at least I knew what I was up against and could prepare myself. While I was afraid of having to lose a large chunk off of my forearm, I again thought that was a much better option than death.
I had to wait four weeks from the day I got the biopsy results until my surgery. I only told a couple of people about it, but I worried about it non-stop. Last week my procedure took place and thankfully, they were able to get all of the skin cells they were concerned about. The area went deeper than expected, but would only leave a small scar. I was more than relieved, but knew that I still had a long road of protecting myself while out in the sun for the rest of my life.
What You Need to Know:
Skin cancer is very scary and is the most common form of cancer in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that most cases of skin cancer in the US are melanoma, which is the most dangerous form due to the current amount of deaths it has caused. The good news though, is that skin cancer is also the most preventable form of cancer. You can protect your family and yourself from UV exposure and prevent skin cancer from ever affecting your life.
The time to do that is right now! As summer approaches and you are outside more, remember to stay inside during peak sun hours. Apply a good sunscreen that protects you from UV rays. A good sunscreen is one with broad-spectrum protection and at least SPF 15.
I choose to wear one that has SPF 50, but the choice is yours! Remember that sunscreen has a shelf life of 3 years. Also remember that in order to have the most protection, you need to reapply it every 2 hours and anytime after you have been swimming and toweled yourself off.
The CDC also suggests that you wear a hat and clothing that protects you. Tightly woven fabrics for both hats and clothing are best. One tip from me that I’m really diligent about is that your hat needs to have a wide brim and if it doesn’t, don’t forget to apply sunscreen to the tops of your ears. It is one of the most exposed places on your body and also a spot that people forget about.
Educate yourself on what to watch for on your skin and protect yourself and your family this summer. You don’t have to be tan to look and feel healthy, so staying in the shade is the way to go. Plop a chair under a tree, grab yourself a cold glass of lemonade, and relax. That’s what I call a safe, relaxing summer day!