By Renee Burch
Note: Each May, Coolibar highlights melanoma survivors to call awareness to the dangers of melanoma. Here, Renee tells her story.
I used to think skin cancer was something that happened after decades of excessive tanning (not to young, otherwise healthy 25-year-olds) or to those living in sun-laden states (not in places like the perpetually-rainy Northwest).
Unfortunately, in March of 2013 I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma on my left thigh. And I quickly learned that, like most other young adults, what I thought I knew about the dangers of the sun and skin cancer was way off.
Unlike other types of cancer, a la pink ribbons and saving the ta-tas, most people know very little about skin cancer. And they seem to know the least about the most deadly type of skin cancer: melanoma. Even more concerning is the fact that melanoma is the second most common cancer in young adults – and the number of yearly diagnoses is increasing, particularly in young women.
Part of what makes melanoma so deadly (and different from other types of skin cancer) is that it can quickly spread, which is why yearly screenings for every person, young and old, are necessary for prevention and early diagnosis.
Let me tell you, it has not been easy – my life was turned upside down the day I found out I had malignant melanoma at the age of 25.
I remember being very confused. I was unsure what it really meant. I didn’t realize right away that having melanoma was going to be the basis for rebuilding my routines – from hiking, athletic events and boating, to walking the dog, looking forward to traveling and starting a family. And, it took me a while to figure out how I was going to continue to do all these things while being “safe” in the sun.
For a while I tried to justify why I got the disease and other people I knew who were my age did not. “Back in the day” I always kept a healthy tan (turns out, it wasn’t healthy after all!), but I didn’t burn often, so I figured I was lucky to tan easily, and didn’t worry much about skin damage.
I shelled out extra money for the tanning beds I was told were the best “because they didn’t have the bad UV,” or because artificial tanning was beneficial to increasing vitamin D absorption.
My parents vaguely warned me about the dangers of overexposure to the sun, but never had any type of skin cancer. So, I lived life under the veil of belief that skin cancer wouldn’t affect me. My uncle had Stage IV skin cancer more than 20 years ago. I figured if he had it, removed it and has never had a reoccurrence, that’s how it worked: get skin cancer, get it removed, and move on.
I spent many months feverishly researching online, reading books, talking to other survivors, and testing a myriad of sunscreens (a trial-and-error that often left me covered in a ghostly white sheen). I completely switched my skin products, certain foods and supplements — everything in my daily life was impacted by melanoma in one way or another.
I found it difficult to decipher how to lead a normal life versus how to lead a normal life with melanoma. I struggled with the fact that the damage I had previously done was irrevocable. Right now, I have a one in 10 risk of developing malignant melanoma again. If I don’t take care of myself I could be a one in five, or a one in three. But the best I’ll be is a one in 10 risk.
And, I could not possibly spend life holed up indoors, or wearing thick and bulky, dark-colored, long-sleeve clothing on sunny summer days.
After months of angst, I realized I had to stop worrying about tomorrow’s challenges, and take charge. I was only 25. I want to travel, I want to have kids one day, and it was unrealistic that this disease was going to stop me from getting outside and enjoying day-to-day activities. I was determined: melanoma would not control my life. I was going to control it.
A New Life in the Sun
Thankfully, after recently celebrating my one-year melanoma free anniversary (a really big accomplishment for me!), I find myself achieving peace of mind with my diagnosis. I am continuously learning how to navigate life in the sun, without hampering my previously active and outdoors lifestyle.
I have vowed never to purposely seek out a tan – whether in the summer sun or in a tanning salon bed – and I am an advocate to my family and friends about practicing “safe sun”. Perhaps most importantly, I seek shade whenever possible and limit my sun exposure, particularly during peak hours between 10 am and 4 pm (even in the winter or on overcast days).
Without UPF clothing, I know my path to a healthy balance would have been much more difficult. I have sun protective clothing for nearly every scenario. In fact, I have a special dresser drawer designated specifically to it! I have UPF 50+ baseball caps for hiking and biking, sun hats for summer boating and leisure, beach cover-ups, running leggings, swim skirts, and a variety of other pants and shirts for whatever activities life throws my way.
I am a die-hard loyalist to my favorite brands of sunscreen (and let me tell you, physical sunscreen that isn’t pasty white sure is hard to come by). I seek out the shade, but when life happens and sun exposure is unavoidable, I know I am “safe” because of my go-to sunscreens and sun protective gear.
I continue to advocate and show others by my example the ways in which it is possible to practice safe sun: apply SPF of at least 30 and reapply regularly, and fake a glow that is actually healthy. (Believe me, self-tanners have come a long way since the days of streaky orange hand prints!) I wear my scar with pride. It’s a 3-inch scar on my thigh. People see that and say: “Wow that looks serious, what happened?” I tell them: “It’s from melanoma, and that is serious, but this scar could be worse – it could be on a more delicate area of the body, like the face.” That comes as a shock to most people.
If you do nothing else, see your dermatologist once a year. With my diagnosis, I visit mine every three months. But if you notice any changes in your moles, even freckles, get them checked out immediately!
Melanoma is a lifelong battle. One that is not, nor ever will be, easy. But I am fortunate to have caught mine early, to have supportive family and friends, and to have access to an increasing range of sunscreens and sun protective clothing.
I also feel optimistic that one day skin cancer will be as well-known as other cancers. With the support of Coolibar and other skin cancer advocates, I imagine a world where melanoma 5Ks and fundraisers, mobile mole-checks and UPF clothing are commonplace.
Renee Burch is a native of Seattle, Washington, and serves as an example of youth overcoming fear. Renee has created clear messages about melanoma, including the misperceptions about its seriousness, the dangers of indoor tanning and the necessity to reach people while they’re young about ways to prevent it. Renee is a proponent of dressing “cute and sporty,” and considers Coolibar a tried-and-true sole resource. She owns swim leggings, sun hats, half-zip shirts, jackets and sun hats, and more.