I am very blonde, very fair skinned, blue eyes — my skin burns easily in the sun. During my entire childhood, my mother always applied sunscreen or I would wear long-sleeved shirts, hats, pants, etc., but still, sometimes burns would happen. I grew up in a small farming community where “everyone knows your name,” so I never felt any different than any of my friends. That all changed during my college years.
When I went away to college, I wanted to look like everyone else — tanned and beautiful. My mother would constantly ask me, “Do you have sunscreen on?” and of course my answer was always, “Yes”, although admittedly, I didn’t use much sunscreen in college. I tried everything to tan — baby oil, lying out in the sun, tanning booths, etc. The only thing that happened to me was burns, blisters, sleepless nights. I would get a few freckles on my arms, but no tans. There were quite a few insults slung my way just because I couldn’t tan. Why couldn’t I just tan and look like everyone else?
After college, I moved to Arizona, surprising, I know, why would someone that burns so easily move to a state with 300-plus days of sunshine? The difference is this; in Minnesota you are so excited to see the sun, that it is very easy to forget the sunscreen. Since it is sunny every day in Phoenix, I use sunscreen as part of my daily routine.
In December of 2001, my fiancé and I moved to Poland for his job. We made plans to marry in Arizona the fall of 2002. In July of 2002, I was visiting my parents, preparing for the wedding and bridal showers. One evening, while sitting on the patio with my sister-in-law, niece and nephew, we were joking about my “tan” lines. My nephew, who was 11 at the time, asked, “Why don’t you tan?” and I showed a few of my freckles and one on the back of my arm. Later in the day, my sister-in-law noticed the “tan spot” on the back of my arm and asked if any of my doctors had noticed it or not. I said, “No,” but I would ask my OB-GYN later in the week, since I had an appointment with her anyway — not thinking it was anything serious. When I went later in the week, she thought maybe it looked suspicious and that I should see a dermatologist. My mother went into “Momma Bear” mode and immediately called the Mayo Clinic — she wouldn’t be satisfied unless I was seen by one of the best doctors. Three days later, I was at the Mayo Clinic.
While there, the doctor said she couldn’t be sure what the spot was — but it might be melanoma. Those words were very frightening to me, since one of my very good friends’ father passed away from melanoma when we were 19. A biopsy was taken and she would call me back with the results. My appointment was on a Friday and I asked her if she could contact me in Poland because I would be leaving on Monday for Warsaw. She said she would get word to me as soon as possible, but asked if I understood that if it was melanoma. I would have to fly back to the states as soon as possible for surgery. This was almost too much information for me to think about. There was no phone call on Saturday, which I thought was good news. So on Sunday, I packed my suitcases getting ready for the early-morning flight on Monday. Sunday night at 5 p.m., my doctor called and told me to cancel my flight — I wasn’t going anywhere except back to the Mayo Clinic on Tuesday for melanoma surgery. After my initial shock, the tears flowed, I wasn’t prepared for surgery. I made arrangements with the airlines, called my fiancé and lay in bed and prayed to God for a good outcome.
The surgery came and was successful — the scar remains and I am proud to have it because I beat cancer.
It has been 10 years now, I see my dermatologist every six months and have had other cancerous cells removed, but so far no more melanoma.
• One-in-50 Americans has a lifetime risk of developing melanoma.
• In 2009 nearly 63,000 were diagnosed with melanoma in the United States, resulting in approximately 8,650 deaths.
• The projected numbers (according to the National Cancer Institute) for 2012 are even higher with 76,250 diagnosis and 9,180 deaths (according to Melananoma.org).
Wear sunscreen daily and if you have any freckles, moles or suspicious spots have them checked out by your doctor, it could save your life. May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, a great time to have your annual skin check-up.
• Leah Derewicz is a 15-year Ahwatukee Foothills resident. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.