Learning from Melanoma – My Personal Story

I remember looking down at a mole I had on my arm, one that I had my entire life, and thinking “something’s wrong with this.” For awhile I lived in a very comfortable place called “denial” with this horrific looking red mole. I kept thinking I must have scratched it in the middle of the night and that it will heal on its own. When the mole started bleeding every day and developing a red ring around the edges, I knew it was time to see the doctor.

I was 29 years old and actually in my surgical residency. I’d taken off hundreds of skin lesions before, yet I chose to ignore my own. My doctor’s immediate reaction was “I’m taking that off right now!” I think I knew in the back of my mind that it was melanoma and it was! It was a dramatic change in a mole I had my entire life that now had irregular borders, color change, ulceration and was in a sun-exposed area. 

Maybe I feared the reality that all those years of sun-worshipping had caught up with me and I would have to relinquish my love for the sun and outdoors. Maybe it was the fact I would have another scar. Or it was just that I did not want to have melanoma. Whatever the reason, after the biopsy came back I had to face the cold hard truth that melanoma was now going to be a part of my life.

I underwent a radical resection of the lesion and although I did end up with a very large scar, thankfully I did not need a skin graft. Three short years later, I found a second larger and deeper melanoma that went unnoticed since it was on my back. Another surgery was needed to resect this lesion and I had samples taken from my lymph nodes. I was so blessed that the tests on my nodes came back negative. That was my last melanoma.

My scars were a constant reminder of how stupid I had been with my skin. After my surgeries, I beat myself up for going to the beach without proper sunscreen, going to the tanning bed to be “healthy looking” and not pasty in winter and for staying outdoors as much as I possibly could.

I was teased as a kid for my white skin and my nicknames included Casper the Ghost, Whitie, Albino and Snow Storm. I thought if I could just stay in the sun long enough I would train my skin to be that gorgeous olive color I always wanted. I could not have been more wrong.

After a few years and many mental beatings, I got over it. I’ve learned to embrace my scars and to “embrace the pale.” Today, I look at the scars and my skin color as beautiful. If I could go back in time I would use sunscreen with SPF higher than 30, stay out of the tanning bed all together and avoid high peak hours of sun exposure. The most important thing I would have done was learn to love my skin for whatever color it was. People are beautiful for their differences and if we were all the same, the world would be a boring place. Every once in a while the little tan goddess inside beckons me to try to bronze again, but I have discovered that self-tanners and spray tans give me a more beautiful and safer tan than the sun ever did.

I offer this little story because I want others to learn from my mistakes. As physicians we give people medical advice and facts, but many times these facts are lost in medical terminology and overwhelming information. Here is my simple advice:

1. Love your skin – after all, it is the largest organ in the body.
2. Protect what you love – use a broad spectrum SPF 30 or higher and apply at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure.
3. Go on a dermatologic scavenger hunt – check your skin regularly for new moles or moles that have changed.
4. Don’t ignore the changes you may find – better to find them when they are small and will leave less of a scar if they need to be removed.
5. Seek a doctor – if you find moles or skin spots that are worrisome.