Monday, March 5, 2018

Why I'll Never Be Tan Again

This is not me. It's totally a photo from the internet... but it used to be me. Bronzed and brown under the sun all day.

When I was 21, I went to the dermatologist because an itchy freckle had formed on my right breast. It had only been a few months since my last visit to the tanning bed which resulted in a deep tissue sunburn deep into my breasts. It had itched and burned all the way through to my rib cage for about 48 hrs. Nothing could soothe the pain because it was deep under the surface of the skin.

I never went back to a tanning bed, however, but the damage was already done. I hadn’t really been an avid indoor tanner. Maybe 5-6 times per year at the most since I had turned 18. I had just been invited to be a tanning salon spokesmodel for a local company, and they would require me to use their beds regularly, and stay tan at all times. I would be the model on their advertisements on TV and in print. The idea of it was exciting, but after the deep burn, I was scared, and decided not to do it.

I am naturally fair, blue-eyed, blonde, and require a sunburn to actually get more than a slight pale golden color. I purposefully sought out sunburns through my teens and early 20’s, I loved the look, and how smooth my skin looked when it was sunburned and/or tan, until that fateful day at the dermatologist’s office when my itchy freckle got me a severe scolding.

“How long have you had this?” He asked angrily, which frightened me immediately.

“A couple months… I think. Well, that’s how long it has itched.”

“If you had waited even a few weeks longer, we might be treating you for melanoma. Don’t ever, EVER, ever wait on things like this again. You are too young to be a cancer patient, and I don’t want to be the one to tell you you’ll be going to an oncologist.” He put the fear of life into me, which is what he should’ve done. I left his office in tears, with an appointment card in my hand for a local plastic surgeon who would be removing a large chunk of tissue from my breast and leaving it unmarked and not disfigured.

It’s true, plastic surgeons are wonderful. In the right lighting, you can see the faintest white mark where the incision was, but on most days, you can’t even tell he cut out an inch-wide chunk of my breast tissue.

From that day on, I became pale as I was the day I was born. Sunscreen was my friend. Hats were my best ally, and laying out was only ok, as long as I was covered. I missed my tan skin, but I didn’t want to die for it.

The damage was done, though. I began seeing the dermatologist twice yearly, and regular biopsies were taken of suspicious looking spots. Some moles were changing in a bad way but not totally scary yet, but every couple of years, a big cut would have to be made. The second one was on my shoulder, resulting in a dog-bite scar. It was impossible not to scar when it was right over my rotator cuff. The process of healing that one was painful. They had cut two inches across in a diamond shape, and had put inner and outer stitches.

The next big one came a few years after that, and was on my scalp. It felt like I had gotten a facelift once they stretched and stitched the skin back together after removing a large chunk of from the back of my head. I still remember the horrible grating feeling while they were loosening the skin on the back of my skull so they could stretch it back together. I had to breathe through my nose to avoid vomiting. 

I was lucky they found that one. Typically, when spots are found on the scalp they are late stage melanoma, because they’ve been growing hidden for far too long. Mine was just a few months away from being melanoma, they said. I was lucky, again.

It’s been a few years since that one, and right on schedule, they’ve found another spot. This time it’s on my cheek by my ear. However, this one isn’t almost cancer. It’s actual cancer.

It’s a basal cell carcinoma. It’s not a deadly cancer like melanoma. It doesn’t have to be fought with chemotherapy. It’s unlikely to spread at all unless it’s left untreated for too long. It’s a slow-growing, localized spot, but will never heal and can eventually grow deep enough it can ruin the bone underneath it. It’s crusty, and peels regularly. I have to have a special procedure done to remove the tissue in the area without disfiguring my face. I'm not scared of it. I am lucky. It could've been melanoma. I could be facing a whole other treatment plan, and a major life-altering diagnosis. Instead I'll just be dealing with a facial scar.

I’m 33 years old, and have been diagnosed with a form of skin cancer, and it was totally preventable. It was totally my own fault. My mom, bless her heart, tried to force me to wear sunscreen. I fought against her so hard thinking she was just being a worrywart, but I was wrong. The sun can kill you if you let it. If you’ve had 5 or more sunburns in your life, you are double the risk for melanoma. Well, I can’t even use my hands and feet to count how many sunburns I willingly gave myself.

More people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer, than all other cancers combined. More people get skin cancer from indoor tanning than people get lung cancer from smoking. Any history of indoor tanning increases the risk of developing basal cell carcinoma before age 40 by 69%, and if you’ve used a tanning bed before 35, you’re 75% more likely to get melanoma. 1 out of every 3 cancers diagnosed is a skin cancer, and most of those are basal cell carcinomas, like mine. It’s nuts how preventable this is and so many of us just won't do it. Skin cancer is also quickly becoming the young adult cancer. You guys, wear your sunscreen, and your hats!

Evidence of my gigantic gardening/beach/summer hat, and my pale skin.

If I could go back, I would undo it all. I would slather myself in sunscreen every hour I was at the pool, hanging out outside, or the beach. I would wear hats, and sleeves, and take an extra 5 seconds to think about what I was doing. Tan skin is damaged skin. Had I known what I do now, I'd have never let my skin get damaged so frequently. It’s too late though. I can only work on catching things early enough.

The damage is done now.


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