Like a lot of people, I love the sun. Sitting outside and basking in its warm rays reminds of summers at the beach, underwater handstands and being stretched out on a lounge chair with a good book in hand.
Unfortunately, those days are now gone for me.
A while back I went to my dermatologist for a routine exam. It was the usual strip down, be stared at by the doctor for an uncomfortable amount of time, and then ask questions. I had just one. There was a freckle, less than a centimeter in diameter, that I’d had most of my life. I loved it, as I love all of my birthmarks, but this one was looking a little different lately. I’d already consulted WebMD and was familiar with the ABCDEs of melanoma, which stand for Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter and Evolution. This little guy was falling into more categories than I cared to count. My doctor was unconcerned but agreed to biopsy it as a precaution. I left the office, went about my life and assumed I would receive a call from his nurse in a week or two telling me all was a-okay.
Then a few weeks ago, towards the end of a Friday, my doctor called. This is never a good sign, but it’s interesting how one only realizes such things in retrospect. He had news, he told me. The mole was actually stage 1 melanoma and thus far, non-invasive. All I heard was melanoma. All I could reply with, as he told me about the minor surgery that would need to be done by a plastic surgeon as soon as possible, was OKAY. Okay, okay, okay, I repeated. But really, I was not.
“It’s a good thing you pointed this out,” he told me before hanging up. “If you’d waited much longer, you’d be in a much different place.”
I’d read about melanoma scares and diagnoses in the past but I brushed off the cases of young women around my age with caveats. “She so went to a tanning salon–a lot,” I’d tell myself. Or, “She probably never used sunblock.” It was easier this way; I was untouchable. Besides, my freckles were cute. They weren’t like the grotesque, inch-long blobs I’d seen on the Internet.
Except none of the reasons I’d applied to others in my situation applied to me. I’ve been pretty vigilant about applying sunblock (SPF 30) my entire life — even going so far as to wear it on my face every day. I’ve never been to a tanning salon nor have I ever gotten sun poisoning, and melanoma (the risk for which is genetically-linked) doesn’t run in my family. Point being, this wasn’t supposed to happen to me. But then again cancer doesn’t play by the rules.
The same week of my diagnosis I came across an article on trusty ole WebMD stating that the number of melanomas found among women under 40 increased by more than eightfold between the 1970s and 2000s. This is actually higher than what the National Cancer Institute reported. The “good” news it that death rates are down because women (and men) are more aware of changes in their skin and are more likely to visit a doctor. Never-the-less, the facts are scary, especially since women in the 20s and 30s are seeing the most dramatic rise in malignant moles. I should mention that I’m 32.
As for what’s in store for me, outside of a few stitches I am in the clear, a diagnosis for which I am grateful. As my doctor said, “It could have been much worse.” Sadly, the sun and I will never have the relationship we used to. No more basking on lounge chairs while reading—unless there’s an umbrella up–and I’ve traded Sun-In for sun hats and SPF 15 for SPF 40. In the end, I’m happy to. After all, I’ll be alive.
So take it from me: be vigilant and pay attention to all of your freckles and moles. To take a page from the TSA and NYC MTA playbook, “If you see something, say something” and for those you can’t see, ask a friend or partner to keep an eye on them for you. In the meantime, see your dermatologist regularly, wear an SPF of 30 every single day, limit your exposure to the sun, and buy a hat. There are some cool ones out there. I promise.
Jessica Schein is a full-time freelance writer, young adult novelist and essayist whose work has appeared on Salon and The Bygone Bureau. When not writing she can be found endlessly surfing the Internet, practicing yoga, quoting Seinfeld, training for a half-marathon or blogging. Oh, and she really likes Twitter, too.
Featured image by Frederic Poirot on Flickr