Today, since it’s May 4, we’ll be featuring a Princess Leia tutorial…
Just kidding, we won’t. My fandoms are serious, but I’m not that into Star Wars.
Plus, I can’t do hair to save my life.
I originally had other content planned, but when I learned that May is Skin Cancer and Melanoma Awareness Month, I bumped it out because, frankly, this is more important. Each Monday of this month will feature a post pertaining to sun safety and skin cancer awareness and prevention.
I’ve talked about my pursuit of a good facial sunscreen before (I’m liking it, btw!) and have mentioned here and there that my Mom received a (super early) Melanoma diagnosis.
Given today, specifically, is Melanoma Monday (first Monday in May), designated by the American Academy of Dermatology, (woops, this sentence got eaten by my editor) I’m sharing my mom’s melanoma story to help raise awareness.
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Growing up in the 70s and early 80s, few people gave a damn about sunscreen and fewer people made their children wear it. Kids played outside not only more frequently than they do now, but more often (which, in itself, is not a bad thing). During her youth, she managed to get some fairly intense sunburns – to the point of agonizing sun poisoning. I even recall her telling a story about using baby oil while tanning; she burned, of course, and learned her lesson about that much, but still didn’t really employ sunscreen. As an adult, her skin would still burn when we’d spend any considerable amount of time outside, but I recall her being red for just a day or two, then peeling and having a decent tan. She thought, “Eh, no big deal. I’ve had worse.”
She has a fair amount of freckles and moles (over 100 combined, she says), not uncommon. In recent years she started looking at her skin more closely and noticed that a mole on her arm changed. She mentioned wanting to get it checked out. Despite my Dad’s skepticism, she made her first appointment in August 2013; the dermatologist said her concerns were sound immediately took biopsies to be tested.
The lab returned the results in about a week, and they called her with a diagnosis: Melanoma Stage 0. Stage 0 means it was caught very early but at no point is it easy to be told,”You have cancer,” especially when the flavor of cancer you have been diagnosed with is the deadliest of its kind.
Fortunately, due to her vigilance enabling its early detection, it could readily be addressed via outpatient excision surgery. She had that procedure done in September 2013 (the same month I made my first post on this blog), excising and then stitching up the affected regions. Mom wound up healing faster than the dermatologist anticipated, healing over her stitches so that they were a pain in the ass to remove – nothing can ever be easy, can it? Given the diagnosis, she has had to get checked every six months. She needs to wear high SPF sunscreen, long sleeves, sunglasses to protect her light eyes, etc. She needs a wide-brim hat for the vegetable gardening she does in the fair-weather months.
A few weeks after her stitches were removed from the first surgery, she had to have a few more biopsies – they did not come back as Melanoma, but as Moderate Atypia – this means they are not cancerous…yet but have a high incidence of becoming cancerous if left to their own devices.
If you go eighteen months without any issues, you can drop back to annual visits. She actually had one of those checkups between my sunscreen post and today, and although she expected smooth sailing, her doctor noticed a few more questionable spots on her back and took them for testing, making a total of six or seven biopsies in less than two years, with all but the first (so far) being borderline. She will receive the results of these most-recent biopsies within the week.
I cannot stress this enough getting checked is the key to saving your life with this disease. Melanoma is so dangerous because there is no pain or sickness with it when it can be dealt with easily.
When you start feeling unwell, it is often too late.
Listen to her. She’s been really brave throughout this whole thing, and I really admire her for that (especially being that I’m a whiny miserable brat when I so much as get a sinus infection). Mom, correct me if I’ve mixed anything up or missed something.
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So let’s talk about me for a moment. Like my Mom, I have light eyes, freckles, and small moles. Unlike my Mom, however, I have fewer freckles/moles and my skin is yellow-toned; it tans quickly, easily, and rarely burns. In fact, I’ve had only two, maybe 3, sunburns in my entire life. The first one occurred when I was eleven – after a week outside all day, at the pool, running around, on the beach, etc. and just got a little bit red across the bridge of my nose and cheekbones. The other time was within the last five years at an amusement park in the sun all day in a tank-top – my shoulders got a bit red, I peeled a little a couple days later.
I was really horrible about sunscreen. I went tanning too – between my other hobbies and my 45+ hour a week office job, I was in front of a computer for at least 80% of my waking hours… I still am). I loved the feeling of the sun on my skin, or the faux-sun that came from the bulbs. The serotonin kick, the Vitamin D boost, and the fact that, somehow, it helps keep keratosis pilaris in check. When I’m at my palest I feel like I look sallow, washed out; I enjoy how I look with a tan. I wasn’t going every day, or even every other day. Twice a week, tops – but still. None of those reasons are good enough for me to continue risking my health.
Although Melanoma is most-commonly caused by lifestyle factors, my Mom’s doctor indicated that predisposition can be hereditary, too. Of course, she panicked – I was currently tanning when this diagnosis came through. I canceled my membership (and thus have two-thirds of a whopping 64oz jug of tanning bed lotion to get rid of). I researched and purchased sunscreen (that, as I’ve shared, I wound up not liking). I scheduled an appointment with the same dermatologist my mom sees – at 22, I was declared OK, but the whole thing was a wake-up call. It shouldn’t take our mothers getting Melanoma diagnoses to take care of ourselves properly.
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What I want for you is to learn from us. Make healthier choices. I want you not to need someone close to you getting sick to, “scare you straight,” so to speak.
You aren’t going to be perfect. I’m not going to be perfect; it is going to take me a long time I get into the habit of slapping on sunscreen religiously. I’m going to forget it some days, for now at least. If my Mom hadn’t paid attention to her skin, things could be very different.
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Edit: As of about 1:30 today, my dad went to the dermatologist himself. He will have at least two biopsies in ten days’ time. This is no joke, and is doubly important for me to be careful. You need to take care of yourself, too.