Monday, May 9, 2011

Skin Cancer: My Story


Since taking a little more of a personal turn on my blog, and May being Skin Cancer Awareness Month, I felt it the perfect opportunity to share my experience with skin cancer.

Growing up in Southern California two things are inevitable: one, the majority of your summers will be spent at the beach and two, it's sunny about 90% of the year. Knowing this information you can do two things with it, you can be smart and enjoy both of these things while using sunscreen, wearing a hat, covering up, just being protected or you can choose to take advantage of these California perks and slather on sun tanning oil and try to get as dark a tan as you possibly can. I chose the latter. My favorite part of going to the beach was coming home and taking a shower and comparing how tan my skin got by my newly formed tan lines.
But the thing is, I'm fair, so I never really just got tan-- I got burnt. I remember about three of four times throughout my childhood and teenage years of being horribly and painfully sunburned. One summer in particular, before my freshman year of high school, I was invited to spend a weekend at the beach for my friend's birthday. Three full days of laying on the beach, from morning till dusk, with not a single slab of SPF. It wasn't until the last day when I started to feel like my skin was on fire that I finally decided maybe I should put on some sunscreen, but by that point it made no difference. I was so badly burned that the skin on my forehead started to peel about two layers down and revealed this tender, pinkish skin that would sting and burn if I tried to put anything on it, especially makeup to cover it up. That's how I had to take my yearbook photo.


                                                                              Laying out on Catalina Island, 2001

If that wasn't bad enough, when I was 17, I got a job at a tanning salon. One of the perks of working there was free tanning. I didn't work there for very long, a little over two months, but I milked the free tanning for all I could while I could. Every single day off I had, two or three times a week, I was tanning. It was the middle of winter and I was the tannest I'd ever been in my life. I loved everything about it. I loved relaxing and listening to music while feeling the warmth of the bulbs on my body, doused in the scent of tanning lotion. And working there, you were fed these claims and "facts" that tanning beds weren't harmful and having a base tan was actually healthy and prevented sun burns and cancer by building your skin's tolerance to UV rays. I even wrote a school paper defending indoor tanning, and arguing how it was actually good for you. Even after I quit my job, I still continued to tan for months afterward until slowing tapering off and doing Mystik tanning instead. I'm not sure if I switched because I was actually concerned about developing cancer, or because it just gave me faster results. Probably because I got faster results since I clearly remember one time going to the salon and Mystik tanning and then jumping into a tanning bed to get extra tan.


                                                                 me at my "tannest", 2004

Then one night in 2007, I was sitting on my bed reading, with my legs bent when out of nowhere something on the back of my leg caught my eye. It was a dark freckle about the size of a pencil eraser that I never remember being there before. I immediately got worried. I told my mom and we decided to just watch it and see if it changed. A few months later when I started noticing that it had gotten darker, but only on one side, I knew it wasn't good. About two months after my 21st birthday, I went to the dermatologist and got a biopsy. A week later I was told it was melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. "We're pretty sure we got it all, the margins look clear," my dermatologist told me, "but with melanoma we have to take extra precautions. You'll have to have surgery."

In August of that year I had surgery to remove the surrounding areas where the cancer had been, making the incision about 6 inches long and 3 inches deep. I was off of work for 3 months healing. It was only suppose to be 3 weeks, but the stitches on the incision popped post-surgery causing the wound to reopen and have to heal naturally from the inside out (which is why my scar is so messed up and asymmetrical). I have a love/hate relationship with my scar. It's high enough up on my leg where it's easily covered up unless I wear short dresses or skirts, but sometimes I still get self-conscious about it. Other times I like it. It's a reminder of how lucky I am, and how cautious I need to be. It's a story, a time in my life forever marked on my body. Even though it's on the back of my leg so I can't physically see it, I'm still reminded everyday that it's there. I can feel it when I sit down or cross my legs and I know it will never not be there. Nor will the other scars I have from multiple other biopsies I've had to get the past three years.

                                                                                            post-surgery, 2008

Now everyday I put sunscreen on my face before my makeup, and I spray my body with SPF 80. I wear sunglasses all the time. I have dark spots under my eyes, not from lack of sleep, but from discoloration due to sun damage. I'm constantly having to be vigilant of when new freckles and moles pop up (just found a new one in between my fingers) and I have to go to the dermatologist every six months to get checked. For the rest of my life, I have to do this. In some ways I'm glad I got it when I was so young, instead of 20 years down the road when I have 20 years worth of more sun damage. And because no matter how many people tell you that there's a chance you're going to develop skin cancer, you never really believe them, or take them seriously. You think, "yeah, maybe... but right now I look damn good being tan" Trust me. I know this. I live by a lake and every summer I see people in bathing suits lathering up their bodies in oil and walking around in summer dresses with their sun-kissed tans, and I get jealous. I want to do that. (Though a lot of times I see people extremely burnt and in pain and I think, 'I'm so glad I'll never have that again.') I want to frolic around the beach and come home and bask in my body's tan lines. But I can't. Thank God for sunless tanner... It's a lifesaver. It's an instant, natural looking tan without the sunburn or the damage. I was always too impatient to lay out long enough to get super dark anyway.

So if I can offer you any piece of advice, it would be to be cautious and be preventative. Do it before you have a six inch scar on your body reminding you to do it. And don't think just because you aren't blonde hair/fair skin you aren't at risk. Everyone is at risk. Did you know Bob Marley died from melanoma? It really can happen to anyone, yet it's one of the most preventable cancers. Please learn from my mistake. If you'd like to know more about skin cancer and preventative care you can visit the Skin Cancer Foundation.


  1. Wow, thank you for sharing. I used to be addicted to tanning. I would tan everyday indoors then, still lay out. Luckily, I realized how dangerous and stupid this was before it was too late. If you have any recommendations for good sunless tanners that are not too expensive that would be great!


  2. Thanks for sharing.
    I found a melanoma on the back of my elbow a few years ago. I wasn't happy with it and it took me ages to find a doctor that was happy to remove it. I'm glad I stuck with my gut instinct. It was almost growing into the major nerve on my arm. It could have left me paralysed as well as sick.

  3. Emily,
    It's posts like this that reiterate why i love your blog so much.. you're honest, real, and beautiful (and you have amazing hair)! Sharing this and other personal stories can't be easy. Thank you for opening up... :)

  4. This issue is so important, and I really appreciate how you have addressed it here. I, too, did not heed the warnings (though when I was a child, there weren't as many as there are now) which doesn't excuse the tanning habit I developed a few years ago, for almost a year.
    Now, I have sun sensitive skin: as soon as the sun returns (like it is now, in May), my skin tone is subtly out of whack, and I don't think it is very becoming when the lighting reveals it.
    There is so much hype about that which is truly trivial, that it is hard to know which issues are genuinely dangerous. I'd just like to second your post here by saying that too much sun exposure isn't good - and that it seems to me that the sun is stronger now than it was before.

  5. I have fair skin like you with lots of freckles and moles, and this is a great reminder to be extra vigilant! Thank you for sharing this. I've posted it on my Facebook too!

  6. thank you, thank you, thank you!! for posting this...I've read your blog for quite some time & absolutely adore it. When you posted your post about dealing with GAD, I instantly admired you even more and felt a wave of relief as I have some anxiety issues myself and have always felt pretty alone it.

    I recently went through a skin cancer scare in March, which coupled with my anxiety was absolute hell. In the end, everything turned out fine, yet I will never, ever strive to be tan again in my life.

    I just wanted to let you know that by talking about your issues and problems on your blog you are absolutely making a difference in so many people's lives. When I saw your skin cancer story today I knew I had to comment because my first thought was "Wow, this girl has/is going through so many of the same things I am" and that reassurance that I am not alone has made a world of difference.

    Thank you :)

  7. Such a great post! When I was younger I would tan like crazy in the summer months...but now that I have a daughter I realize that my life is more important than having a great tan. But when I go on Vacation I still end up laying out in the sun with minimal's horrible. I have to say tho I think you are absolutely stunning without a tan!

    Natasha ~ Required2BeInspired

  8. Great post! I also have some beautiful scars on my back from biopsy's done when I was a child. I make sure I use spf everyday even though being of Hispanic heritage and very pale I get made fun of but I always retort by saying cancer and wrinkles isnt going to be funny later.


  9. Nicole, I always get comments for how pale I am naturally. The first week I went back to work after being off for my surgery a customer goes, "it looks like someone hasn't seen the sun!" I didn't even know what to say so I just did a little, "heh...yeah..." and you could tell he immediately felt stupid that I didn't find it funny. But you're right, cancer and wrinkles aren't funny. Hopefully I'll get the last laugh haha.

  10. Thank you for sharing. I used to tan all the time too, and I am worried that this could happen to me. After reading this, I know it can.

  11. Wow, this is a powerful story. Thank you for sharing this with us!

    xo L.

  12. Thank you for sharing your story!!!

  13. I just wanted to write this quick note thanking you so much for writing this post. Many years ago we lost my grandmother to melanoma skin cancer. It was the hardest three years of my life watching my grandmother fighting this cancer. She too had a portion removed from her leg, although quite a bit bigger. She finally lost her battle with melanoma. I am so happy for you that everything turned out well for you, but people definitely need to be more aware of the effects of tanning. Living in Wisconsin many girls here go to tanning beds to achieve that "perfect glow" I wish there were more ro-models out there promoting alternative methods to tanning beds and laying out. Thank you again so much for sharing your story, and educating more people on the effects of tanning.


  14. Thank you for posting this. During my early 20s sunbathing was my favorite activity but now I put SPF every time I go out. I am so scared that I might have cancer... it is so popular this days.

  15. Thank you for writing this. It's shocking to me how many people, women in particular, are obsessed with tanning. I often hear or read, "I'd rather have cancer than be pale." When did we learn to hate our natural skin color so much? I too am quite fair and have experimented with self-tanners since I was 13, trying to find that perfect one. I finally have it. And I am so thankful to have wizened up before I did some real damage. Nobody ever thinks it will happen to them. Sharing your story helps to drive the point home.

    And might I say, you are so gorgeous naturally. Your skin tone suits you so well. I hope you feel the same. Again, thank you for sharing.

  16. You are super brave! I was a tanning bed girl too - though I never went more than once a week. And would "spray" if I actually wanted colour. Thank you so much for sharing!

    I do have to ask - since you are so careful about the sun, do you do anything to supplement your vitamin D? Just curious because mine goes low in the winter.

  17. Thank you so much for sharing this story. It's amazing how often we are able to make excuses for ourselves to do the things we want to do. "It's ok because I only go once it a while." - "It's ok because I get this dark in the summer anyway." People really don't think about the consequences of their actions, usually until it's too late.

    I'm glad that you were able to learn how to live a better life, but I'm sorry that it took such a huge event for that to happen. I agree with Terra, your natural skin tone is so beautiful! I'm always jealous of how gorgeous you look with your smooth creamy skin. We all have to work a little harder sometimes to fully realize that we were made the way we were for a reason. It can just be hard to accept sometimes, especially when there's only a few beauty ideals being flashed at us all the time.

    Again, thank you so much for sharing. And I'm so happy to hear that you're ok.

  18. thank you SO MUCH for sharing this personal post - its a great warning to women, especially in today's tan-obsessed culture.

    my grandfather died of melanoma in 2002, i was living with my grandparents at the time. by the time it was discovered, the cancer had advanced into his lungs, and we watched a VERY quick decline of his life in 8 short weeks. it was awful. you were so lucky to have found it so soon, and, as you said - get it young before more years of sun damage could occur.

    im also extremely fair had have more painful burns than i can count. even with my family history, ive assumed any problems wouldnt come until later in my life. thank you for a MAJOR wake up call. time to schedule an appt with a dermatologist, stat! many wishes you remain healthy!!!!!! :)

  19. this is a great post. whenever my friends STILL go tanning (I abandoned it in college and never went that consistently anyway) I always pull out the "bob marley died of skin cancer" line. Congrats on changing your is hard, but it's even better being alive! ;)

  20. what a powerful story and message! i have tons of moles and also have to go every 6 months and have had about 6 spots removed (lucily, benign). and can i just add that i think you look way way better less tan!

  21. I am a long time reader first time commenter.Wanted to say thank you for this post!!
    I am latina (a very VERY pale one) and my husband is half italian. Everytime we go to Italy his family comments on how a latina can be so pale blah blah. I am scared of cancer and i recently had a cancer scare (breast) I do not want to have to deal with more!The country where I live (Switzerland)has the highest rate of skin cancer between young people in whole Europe.People just don't fully understand the dangers of sun exposure and is really sad.
    Again, thankyou for this post and I am glad you are well!!!

  22. What an inspiring and informative post. People don't want to believe about the dangers of indoor tanning. Thank you for sharing your story!

  23. I think that a lot of young people think that it won't happen to them, or that the effects will happen when they're old and "ugly" anyway. A girl actually said to me once that she didn't care if she got leathery from tanning, that she wanted to look good while she was young. That was about 10 years ago. I wonder how she feels now?
    I always worry about my friends who tan. I'm biracial and still protect myself in the sun. So every year I see white girls who are darker than me. I posted a link to this on my Facebook so that hopefully some people will read it and realize that it's not just something that happens to "old" people.

  24. Thanks so much for posting this! I found you through Tick Tock Vintage's link to this post. I live in So Cal too, I tend to be sensible with SPF (I wear it everyday on my face) since I'm really pale but this reminds me I need to always be careful, even one sunburn is bad news.

    I'm really glad you are okay and are sharing your story for others to learn through your experience!

    Lidi @ Eclectic Flair

  25. Wow, thank you for sharing such a personal story. I don't think it can be stressed enough that no matter your skin compelxion (or age), skin cancer can always be a risk.
    I try my best to use moisturizers /with SPF throughout the year (UV rays are always present and you need protection year round) and higher SPF during the hotter summer months on my face and exposed skin but I'll try to be more deligent. Thank you again for sharing...and best wishes to you.

  26. Thanks for sharing about your serious Disease. I am Board Certified Dermatologist, has been practicing general and cosmetic dermatology in the Irvine, Orange County, California area for the past 10 years.i am sharing some main cause to be have a skin cancer.
    ultraviolet radiation causes almost all cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer, and sun exposure is a major cause of skin cancer.

  27. Hi there! I'm new to your blog. I've been a follower of Melissa's blog for a long time now, and came over from there.
    WOW--you have quite a story to tell about your skin cancer. THANK YOU for sharing it. It really makes a person think. I used to tan but a few years ago developed Melasma and so if I get sun I get weird discolored skin in some spots, so no more sun for me. And that's ok. I'm fine with it. I might look pale, but I'd rather be healthy and pale that's for sure.
    Again, thanks for sharing your story. I'm glad I stopped by. And PS--I'm your newest follower! I can't wait to come back and visit again :)


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