I never intended to share my skin cancer journey with anyone outside of my Facebook friend group. Like everyone else, most of my posts depicted a happy moment in time – an event forever captured to share with family and friends to stay “connected.” My skin cancer was so invasive, time-consuming and emotional, I posted it as a warning for the people I love most. I never wanted anyone to experience what I endured, and continue to live with, from over-exposure to UV rays through tanning bed use and sunburns. My doctors have told me my skin cancer was largely preventable. While I have risk factors (blonde hair, blue eyes, freckles, light skin) that I can’t change, over-exposure to the sun and the use of a tanning bed are things that I could change.
Even today, pictures of my stitches, scabs, and scars are very difficult for me to look at and I cannot believe the response they have had across the globe. Almost daily I have a message on Facebook from someone who has been touched by my story. Most people want to know if I am doing “ok” and how my life has changed since my skin cancer diagnosis. The truth is that although I am feeling fine, my life has changed fairly significantly. Every morning I look in the mirror and self-check my skin for new spots or visible changes. Given my history and knowing early detection is key for effective treatment, this routine puts me more at ease and reminds me that I am responsible for my own health. It’s not paranoia that causes me to do frequent skin checks; it’s now a part of my daily routine out of necessity.
Prior to skin cancer, I was a sun-worshiper in my younger years. What I loved most about the sun was how relaxing the warmth felt against my skin. And when I was young, kids (including me) played outside for hours each day, without sunscreen. Now I am much more cognizant of the sun. I am not going to hide from it, but I am much smarter about my time in the sun. Being outdoors reading a book on my porch or working in my flowerbeds is still very relaxing to me, but I have changed my lifestyle habits to include the following:
- Avoid direct sun exposure from 10 am – 2pm
- Wear sunscreen daily; I have sunscreen in the make-up I apply every morning
- Skin checks every 6 months by my dermatologist
Sometimes the Facebook message I receive is from someone who is sharing their own skin cancer story with me. They tell me they are grateful to know they are not alone. In all honesty, I have found skin cancer to be a lonely cancer. We are diagnosed, the doctor treats us and we are sent on our way. I have been unable to locate a skin cancer support group, which I believe is greatly needed. When I was growing up, our generation was not warned about the damaging effects of tanning beds, and a sunscreen beyond 2-4 SPF was not available. It is hurtful to hear that I (along with other skin cancer survivors) have “brought this on myself” from strangers and even family members when truly skin cancer awareness and education was unheard of when I was growing up. My mission today is to raise awareness so people don’t have to go through what I have gone through. We now have access to better information, and as the saying goes, knowledge is power. I would also like to create a community of support for those of us who are skin cancer survivors so nobody ever feels like they are alone. I will continue to share my story and encourage everyone to do the same so we can save lives.
This May, we are getting gross. The ugly truth is that skin cancer is not fun or glamorous. We want to share the not-so-wonderful side of what happens after a skin cancer diagnosis. Coolibar’s mission is to keep the world safe from sun damage and we thank each selfless warrior for boldly sharing their story. We hope you bear with us as we share stories to provide awareness, education and spur prevention. We’re among friends–now let’s get gross.