Sunday, May 29, 2011

Vanity Can Be The Death Of You: This Is My Story…

When I was a child, my brother, sister, friends and I spent most of our summers at the local swimming pool. Through the week there were swimming lessons in the morning, public swimming in the afternoon and, on occasion, public swimming in the evening. Between dips in the water we would spread our towels out on the black asphalt, lie on our stomachs and bake in the afternoon sun, trying to see who could get the darkest tan. I have to admit that I was in it to win it. The sun felt good on my skin and in my soul, and I could almost feel my skin darken more and more with each passing day. As a child, I didn’t sunburn so I didn’t have to wait to heal before lying out in the sun again. I didn't get my first real sunburn until I was 16 years old.

When I started my first full time job, I spent my summer lunchtimes walking the few blocks to the park with my sun tan oil, and soaking up as many midday rays as I could. (I loved the smell of my coconut scented tanning oil.) I’d go to the beach in my bikini to make sure every possible inch of me got good and brown – that ‘healthy’ glow. I got a few ‘good’ sunburns in my twenties as the only sunscreen I knew of back then was the umbrella sticking out from the centre of the patio table.

Just before I turned thirty I went to see the doctor…what about, I can’t recall. Before I left the office I happened to mention to her that I had a mole on the back of my right thigh that was so itchy I would scratch it until it bled. On examination she immediately made arrangements for a biopsy. It was fortunate I hadn’t ignored it.

I got the diagnosis four days after my thirtieth birthday; malignant melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers. I was in shock. It’s not that I hadn’t understood why I had had the biopsy, as I knew she was testing for melanoma, it’s that I hadn’t really believed it could possibly be cancer - that happened to other people…it couldn’t happen to me! So many things ran through my head at that moment that I don’t think I heard half of what the doctor said following the diagnosis. Many people in my extended family had had cancer, most of whom had died, and I thought, “I have cancer, what now? How bad is it? Will I need Chemo or radiation?  What will happen to my two young children if I die?” I also wondered how I would tell my husband, whose youngest sister had died of cancer, that now his wife had cancer. I didn’t want him to have to go through that again.

It would be a week before I saw the oncology surgeon and learned what I had in store, and I found myself dwelling on the fact that I had cancer. I had a Halloween party planned for my two young children and their friends to take place in three days time and I didn’t know how I was going to manage it. No matter what I did or to whom I was talking, in the back of my mind I was always thinking, “I have cancer, I have cancer” it was like a mantra…I was obsessed with the thought.

It was Halloween day when I saw the surgeon for the first time and learned my fate was not as dire as I had dreaded; it was stage one. I had never realized the truth in the expression ‘Like a weight lifted off of my shoulders’ until then. I literally felt lighter.

I had surgery a week later in which the surgeon excised a one inch area around the biopsied site and used a skin graft from an adjacent area to cover the wound (Rhomboid flap). I was scheduled to see the surgeon one week after the surgery, and then every three months thereafter for the first year before it was cut back to every six months. I have had three other suspicious moles removed over the years, all of which proved to be non-malignant, thankfully.

It’s funny, for a long time after my surgery, even though I had always gotten a clean bill of health, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I hadn’t had chemo or radiation and I felt that I had gotten off to easy; like I had cheated at cards and won and soon someone would yell ‘Aha! Gotcha! Now pay up.’ I didn’t feel worthy of calling myself a cancer survivor, I felt I hadn’t earned that title. It wasn’t until I heard other cancer survivors speak that I realized I had been thinking about it all wrong. My body had been invaded by a potentially deadly growth. It had been cut into, a piece taken out and a large scar left as a reminder. The sun which I had worshipped all my life was now my mortal enemy. And the fear of recurrence was ever present. Cancer had affected my life in a very real and substantial way.

Now for the part which I know some of you will roll your eyes at…just as I would have back in the day. The preaching.

Melanoma can kill you. Vanity is not worth your life. Sunlight is important for good health, but even a light tan is a sign of skin damage, even after the tan fades the damage remains and builds with each subsequent tan or burn. Not everyone who tans will develop melanoma just as not everyone who smokes will develop lung cancer, but the risk is increased. And if a family member has had it, your chances are, yet again, increased. At the very least it will age your skin and who wants to look older than you should?
Scar, nineteen years later

Skin cancer is now the fastest growing cancer, and one of the most preventable. More educated minds than mine have done the work and have concluded that the best way to avoid the possibility of skin cancer is to limit direct sun exposure by covering up and using sunscreen of 30 or more. (I personally like the Neutrogena with helioplex, as it is the only one which I have tried so far that feels light and non-greasy.) And eighty percent of UV rays travel through clouds and fog, so don’t forget to cover up on cloudy days. For those of you who believe sun beds are better, all I can say is that some tanning beds expose you to five times the amount of UV rays than the sun and that the World Health Organization has upgraded the classification of UV emitting devices, such as tanning beds, from a probable carcinogen, to a KNOWN carcinogen. Remember, any tan (not from a bottle or spray) is skin damage.

Everyone has free will and can decide for themselves what they are willing or not willing to do to protect themselves. And some people will continue to tan regardless of what anyone says but, as far as I’m concerned, I will cover up and protect the largest organ of my body…my skin. I don’t intend to be the corpse with that lovely cancerous glow.

*This is a great blog, check it out

*Another melanoma warrior has lost his battle. RIP Uncle Floyd.


  1. Well written...a an excellent reminder. Thanks!

  2. Excellent blog Shannon...and a story worth sharing! Your words of feeling guilty about being a "cancer survivor" echo others I've talked to...but you're right to realize that you ARE a survivor. You're an example why it's good to be checked often and hopefully detect melanoma early. Dodging a bullet is certainly surviving! And thanks for the plug for my Black Is The New Pink blog. :)

  3. Cancer is cancer... you survived for a reason---to let others be aware of the potential dangers. You have been given an important mission... We are in the same boat and I totally feel every word you wrote. I was not a stage 4 or an end stage but, Melanoma can go from stage 1-4 in just a few short months. You and I are legitimate survivors who were given the gift of delivering a message.

  4. Thank you sooo much for posting this!!!! I was diagnosed at 19, now 21, with melanoma on my left arm in the same spot! My scar is a straight vertical line. When I read how you felt about not being a cancer survivor just because you have not had chemo or radiation and how 'I have cancer' was like a mantra following your diagnosis, I aligned with those thoughts. Following my diagnosis that was all I could thing about, it was in my mind 24/7. I wondered if it ever would go away. Eventually it has. I was also stage 1 and truely have struggled with calling myself a survivor. I did not have chemo or radiation either and felt because like you said I got off easy. As time has went I on I have come to call myself a cancer survivor. I caught it early, thank god I was so lucky to, but I still kicked its but, for now at least. The diagnosis took away something from us, the ability to be carefree. We constantly have to be applying sunscreen and monitoring our time outdoors, most people don't, even though they should. The "healthy glow" from a tan, something that society makes you believe is beautiful is taken away. We now get to fear it, because that is the very thing that could change our life once more. It is no longer beautiful and I fear for those who still think it is, I never want them to sit in the doctor's office and hear 'you have cancer'. Thank you again for posting this!

  5. Thank you for you kind comments. I am glad to hear that I am not alone in my feelings. I believe this will not be the last I write on this subject. Thank you for inspiring me.


  6. Hi Shannon,
    Your story sounds almost exactly like mine. I had my wide excision done March 31, 2011. I too could not get the idea that I had cancer out of my mind. It was all I could think of. I found out right before spring break when I was taking my 2 kids to Disneyland. I went anyways and had a great time. Then, because of where my wide excision was - the outside of my right calf - I had to spend 3 weeks off my feet, non-weight bearing as I didn't have a skin graft and the surgeon was afraid my incision would burst open. I also got a fairly severe wound infection following - 2 rounds of antibiotics later, it's finally healed. I had 4 more suspicious looking moles removed - 3 were Clark's nevi - a melanoma precursor. You are correct when you say we have a role to play in educating others. I have undertaken that as well. I post constantly on my facebook and e-mail any info I get to all my friends. If I would have waited any longer to get my melanoma removed, my story would have been so different. Keep up the good fight, you are definitely not alone.