The Last Weekend of Summer as a Melanoma Survivor

Melanoma survivor offers help based on her own melanoma experience and reading.

Wow, I was arrogant. I never thought it would happen to me. I tanned as a teenager and an adult. I feel really stupid now. Though dark-skinned, I always had a ton of moles. If you are now a melanoma survivor, here are my suggestions for turning this from a horrible negative into some important positives.

Always try to explain and educate. Even several years out, I continue to be floored by the people around me who tell me, “Oh, I had skin cancer too,” and wonder at the fuss I am making. It always turns out they had a basal cell skin cancer—a much more benign type of cancer with a much happier and simpler treatment and prognosis. Don’t give up! Keep explaining.

Warn your loved ones. Until cancer happens, you figure you are exempt, somehow. I wasn’t fair-skinned. I was tough! I used to mentally scoff at the pale people hiding in the shade at the local pool. I remember reclining in the sun across the pool from them. At the time, I think I decided they were probably people who were from Portland or who previously had skin cancer. But now, I know that whether they were melanoma survivors or not, they were smarter than me.

Tell everyone to stay away from tanning beds: I used them as a teenager and as an adult, I would pre-tan in tanning beds before vacations. I would lie in the sun in the summer with minimal sunscreen because I am fairly dark-skinned and I thought tan looked nice. The fake tan products are awesome these days! They have improved and continue to get better. My golden glow now comes from a bottle, and I am safer and happy to be alive!

Tell people to go see a real dermatologist: My dermatologist sometimes removed things at my annual visits. Sometimes the things removed would come back labeled “dysplastic.” Still, I didn’t worry. I even spent a lot of time out in the sun on my “celebrating completing chemotherapy trip" after breast cancer.

Several years ago, after a warm weather vacation, my dermatologist took a mole off my tanned shoulder. It was melanoma. I was shocked, yet as a breast cancer survivor, I couldn’t act like I was a cancer newbie. I knew the drill. At that moment though, I felt pursued by cancer. Get away from me, cancer. I don’t want to do this again, I thought.

Write down your melanoma facts. For you and for your loved ones, find out type and stage. As an “experienced” cancer patient, I knew what to ask. I was lucky. My melanoma was stage 1. I had a large chunk of my left shoulder removed. I call it my dog bite—It is a large indentation on my shoulder with a long scar. After surgery, the doctor sent me off with a sunscreen clothing catalog and a discount coupon for my first order. The catalog reminded me too much of the wig catalog I had been handed a few years for breast cancer. Not good.

Keep up your vigilance and your dermatology appointments: I am now out to every six months. I have had more pathology results than I can count. I have four other “larger excisions” that “weren’t quite” melanomas. No beauty contests to be won here. Most people, cancer or not, would be wise to see a dermatologist yearly for a full body skin check. Be safe.

Finally, I know better. I wear fake tan products and sunscreen. I do go outside, but I cover up. Please be a smarter melanoma survivor than me. Melanoma is one of the most common forms of cancer out there, but if caught early, it can have a good prognosis. Keep reading up on it, informing people around you, completing all the full-body skin checks and stay careful out there.