One melanoma survivor offers advice for Skin Cancer Awareness Month.
Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.
Be aware of sun exposure (wear sunscreen) and be smart about the use of tanning beds (just don't). I was guilty of skimping on sunscreen because I rarely burned. I was guilty of using tanning beds before vacations. My body is a patchwork of biopsies and excisions at the dermatologist's office. Most are tiny little "test samples" and several are deeper follow-up excisions treated much like a melanoma, even though their pathology reports were "not quite" cancer.
Do you have time to see a dermatologist frequently? It is good for everyone to have an annual full-body skin check with a dermatologist. Making the time to see a dermatologist annually is much less time consuming than seeing one every three months and going back for larger excisions – which is what began to happen to me when they found and removed the melanoma on my shoulder four years ago. Your prognosis (outcome) is better when cancer is caught sooner rather than later. Do not delay because you are worried or too busy.
Do you want your body to become covered in scars, small and large? I didn't really want that to happen, but I am still here
. Scars are part of living life. When my melanoma was found several years after my breast cancer diagnosis, my dermatologist also became part of my cancer journey.
Do you do self-checks? I look myself over before each dermatology appointment. After all, we are only human. My body has many scars and freckles and moles, and it is my responsibility to know my own body. Unfortunately, my insurance does not cover digital mole mapping. I point any concerns out to my dermatologist when I see her. Sometimes she chooses to biopsy them, and other times she reassures me that they are not things of concern. Sometimes she finds things that I missed that need a biopsy. We are a team in this process.
Do you accept that fear and worry are part of life? When I look at my skin or my breasts, I am looking for something I don't want to discover. It is worrisome and scary. It is part of life.
Because I was diligent, my melanoma and breast cancer were both caught early. I am still here! I am lucky to see my oncologist and dermatologist regularly. I am alive.
An attitude of gratitude is important with a cancer diagnosis, and it is important to balance the worry. We are fortunate to have access to screening tools, and fear and worry should not keep us away – it should be quite the opposite, actually.
Be smart. Get screened regularly. Learn your own body - lymph nodes, breasts, skin, all of it. A cancer diagnosis is a difficult thing, and we do get through it. Along with the difficulties, there can be an increased appreciation for little things and for life. We are here for each other. There is information, help, and support.
Life before cancer was great, but life in general four years after skin cancer and eight years after breast cancer is even more precious. Please be aware. Please use sunscreen. Please get screened regularly. Life is so worth it!