Melanoma: Tips for You or a Loved One

A melanoma survivor shares her experience and ideas.

Be smart: Many years ago I saw a couple of “them” at the local public pool: Pale-skinned women who hid in the shade of a couple of buildings near the pool and covered themselves up more than the majority of us. I reclined in the sun across the pool from them. I toasted and basked in the sun that day and pondered them. I concluded that they were probably women who had gotten melanoma. Now I think back and clearly see that whether they were cancer survivors or not, they were smarter than I was.

Stay away from tanning beds: I used to tan as a teenager. I used to pre-tan in tanning beds prior to vacations. I used to lie in the sun in the summer with minimal sunscreen because I am fairly dark skinned. I used to not think much about the many moles covering my body, a trait I had inherited from my dad. I used to brag about never (rarely) burning. Ha!

Pay attention to warning signs: I used to not even think about the fact that starting in my late 20s, my doctor had me seeing a dermatologist annually. The dermatologist sometimes removed things. Sometimes the things removed were dysplastic. Still, I didn’t think much about it or worry. In fact, I spent a lot of time out in the sun on my “celebrating completing chemotherapy and radiation trip” to Mexico. Wow. I still didn’t get it.

I didn’t get “it” until a few years after that, when my annual dermatology appointment followed a warm-weather winter vacation and the doctor took a mole off my tanned left shoulder. Yep, melanoma. I was shocked, yet as a breast cancer survivor, I couldn’t even pretend it was my first dance with cancer. As this was my second cancer diagnosis — my first diagnosis being breast cancer five years prior — I knew the drill. I also started feeling a little pursued by cancer. No, cancer. Get away from me. Please. Not again. Not another cancer in a different part of my body. It wasn’t even the side that got the radiation treatment for my breast cancer.

Find out the type and stage: At least as an 'experienced' cancer patient, I knew to ask about the type and stage of my melanoma. I was lucky that it was stage 1. I did go back and had a large chunk of my left shoulder excised. It was called a “larger excision.” It feels and looks like a dog bite — a large indentation on my shoulder that wasn’t there before and a long scar. I left the doctor’s office that day with a sunscreen clothing catalog and a discount coupon for my first order. The catalog brought back vague and disturbing memories of the wig catalog I had been handed almost five years ago. Oh no. Not again.

Keep your dermatology appointments: Now I see my dermatologist every three months. Now I have had more little pathology results than I can count. Now I have had three other larger excisions: one on my back, one on my calf and one on my thigh. They're not pretty. I'm not trying to win any beauty contests here, but still, not pretty.

Finally, I know, truly know better. Finally, I wear sunscreen. Finally, I still go outside, but I cover up. Be smarter than me. Don’t get caught like me. Melanoma is one of the most common forms of cancer out there. If caught early, it can have a pretty good prognosis. Read up on it, get a full body check annually, and be careful out there.