A simple, light blue button-down cotton cardigan, we affectionately called my “swimming sweater,” was my parents’ best attempt at sun protecting my delicate skin as a toddler, while I played outside in and out of the water. Fair skinned like my dad, with freckles, red hair and blue eyes, I always remembered having trouble avoiding sunburns.
At age 8 I remember my father, who at that time worked for the NIH (National Institutes of Health), often brought home some of the first chemical sunscreen, known as “PABA” (Para-aminobenzoic acid). Dad would arrive home with a plastic, ugly brown jug. It was filled with a watery liquid that splashed everywhere, leaving a bright orange stain on anything it touched. Our family would stand in line to “splash” the watery goo on our skin before we went outside or sailed the Chesapeake Bay. (PABA would even turn the white sails of our sailboat orange.) PABA seemed to work, except for the fact that it would stain, streak and wash off the second we hit the water! From an early age, I was very sun aware. This was only because I experienced the blistering pain of sunburns, but I had no idea each childhood sunburn would “reappear” on my skin later in life.
Beginning at age 30, the damage to my skin from prolonged sun exposure was becoming evident. My dermatologist and I knew each other on a first name basis, with the frequency of visible skin spots being frozen or biopsied during each visit. A few excisions were necessary for basal and squamous cell carcinomas to be removed from my chest, arms and face, probably attributed my love of skiing, sailing, beach volleyball and all things outdoor. This practice felt normal and expected for someone with characteristically fair skin like me. And this dermatologic routine, of skin review and spot removal, went on for 15 years. From the first skin cancer detection, throughout the subsequent removals, I was much more diligent about sunscreen, hats, and clothing, to protect me from further sun damage, but the damage had been done. During a routine dermatologist visit, a small basal cell carcinoma turned up. This led to Moh’s surgery on my nostril, with a total reconstruction of my nose using my own ear cartilage. This was humbling, scary and changed my outdoor lifestyle habits forever.
In early 2016, my father had extensive surgery due to melanoma, which prompted me to schedule another skin check visit. My physician scanned my skin, remarking to the nurse, “let’s biopsy these, freeze a few, watch the others.” While seemingly a routine visit, for some reason the freckle on my abdomen seemed newer and something in my gut instructed me to ask the doctor to biopsy it, rather than just watch it. It appeared to be was just a small freckle, but after my dad’s diagnosis, I felt I should be more aggressive about my health. On a Friday, just one week later, I was told it was melanoma. Stage 1A, so we had caught it early. Just three days after my melanoma diagnosis, I was asked to interview for a position with the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF). Given the nature of my very recent melanoma news, I found the timing of this call to be odd and even wondered, “could be some sort of HPAA violation?” Within minutes I realized this call of inquiry was astonishingly the most AMAZING and coincidental timing and I was more than intrigued. At the time, I knew very little about the organization, but I instantly understood how critical they were to this cause that was now near and dear to my heart.
I am proud to say I have been the corporate relations director of the Melanoma Research Foundation since October 2016. Working with this organization has provided me with so much hope for what can be done in bringing an end to this disease. I realize now that I am one of the lucky ones who caught skin cancer early. Until I started at the MRF, I never knew someone dies from melanoma every hour of every day. Reading melanoma statistics like this one horrifies me and renews my commitment to help bring awareness through my work. The medical research being done is making progress and bringing hope. The education around prevention will hopefully turn around the trends that are showing more and more young women and children being diagnosed with melanoma that ever. I will continue to have bi-annual skin checks, protect myself with sunscreen, hats and UPF clothing when I am enjoying the sun outdoors and fight passionately for a cure for melanoma.
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.
Thank you for sharing your story. I hope to see you next weekend at the Miles for Melanoma Walk in DC.