Since writing my story, I learned that my dear friend and ‘cancer buddy’ Erika Valdivia lost her cancer battle. I’m sharing my story in honor of her. Her courage, her strength, and her love for everyone she met. Through all the bumps and missteps of my cancer journey, she was there for me.
I grew up like many Minnesotans, I spent summers outside on the lake at the cabin, and I loved it. At a very young age I learned to love the water, nature, being outdoors, and the sunshine. I’ve carried that with me throughout my life. Even now as an adult the lake is truly my happiest place and our cabin has forever been my favorite place on Earth.
In October 2013, I made the decision to leave my Minnesota roots and move to California. The one thing I had always promised myself was that I would live near water—or at least live a short drive to the beach. I started in Redondo Beach, moved down to Huntington Beach, and am now in Laguna Niguel. Since I’ve lived so close to the beach for the past seven years, I have spent a lot of time walking, exploring, logging my steps…just enjoying the sunshine and being outside. As you can imagine, I’ve stayed pretty tan as a result. I was never one to lay out, use tanning oils, tin foils, or go to the tanning salons. I don’t even wear a bikini! But I do love being tan and always have.
One of the reasons why is (I’m sure) all too common…I struggle with mental health issues. I struggle with body dysmorphia issues and always hated how I look when I’m pale. If I saw myself in the mirror and I was pale (with dark brown hair), I would need to fix that ‘flaw’ to feel better about myself. I have spent plenty of time outside, I’ve used a lot of sunless tanning lotions, and I have not always been great at wearing or re-applying sunscreen, all in an effort to keep a little color. Come September 2020, I was working at LifeTime Fitness and noticed a bump on my face. I didn’t know what it was from, so I called around to different Dermatology offices and got in the next day as a new patient. When I went in, they were incredibly thorough and had a lot of questions about all the moles I had and when my last skin check was. I had been pretty good about going in for skin checks over the years, but 2020 was tough. So many places were closed due to the pandemic. Until I found this bump, I had decided to patiently wait until places opened back up.
During that visit, they found several spots they were concerned about and wanted to take off, specifically three spots. One was on my right buttock (which I swear has never seen the sun), another at my waist right at the pant line (again, I don’t think it’s ever gotten a sunburn), and the other spot was on my right arm.
The spot on my arm had been there for years and previous dermatologists had been watching it, so I didn’t think anything of it. That was until I received not one, but three phone calls from my new dermatologist following my initial appointment. It became a very different story. I had to go back in two more times for them to cut more off. Then a third time when they said they wanted to do an excision because it was melanoma.
When I heard the word “melanoma” the world started spinning a little, but I figured all would be fine. I was going to stay calm.
Fast forward a couple weeks… I did my best to approach my diagnosis as best I could. I got multiple opinions regarding my diagnosis and treatment options and was ultimately referred to an oncologist. They performed the excision on my arm successfully, but the cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes. I had melanoma in the lymph nodes in my groin, armpit, and neck/chin area. They started doing treatments immediately and decided to do T-Vec injections, which is an immunotherapy chemo treatment that gets injected directly into the infected lymph nodes.
Initially, November and December weren’t too awful. Most days I just felt like I had the flu–-nausea, chills, fatigue, exhaustion, and pain. I didn’t like it, but I told myself it was nothing I couldn’t handle. Through it all I kept working full-time, partially because of my mental health. The thought of going through all of this and NOT having my colleagues and friends around me sounded like an absolute nightmare. While people disagreed with my choice, I had to make the best decision for me. No one but me knows how deep some of those battles are, and I had to trust myself.
One of my unforeseen complications was a BIG one. Before I ever had cancer, I had Crohn’s Disease—an autoimmune disease. My friend Erika was with me to celebrate when we finally found a medication to manage the disease. That medicine, however, had a known side effect…increase the risk of skin cancer. Well, it worked!
With the combo of Crohn’s and Melanoma, my body has been put through a lot. I have a lot of days where my mental struggle is rough. I question a lot and I am adjusting to being pale all the time. I’m trying to see myself as beautiful regardless and am working through the physical struggles. The part that has been one of the biggest challenges for me is that I grew up playing sports, competing, and have a real love for being active and working out—and how your body, mind, and spirit feel from it. When my mental health gets the worst of me, I take it out on the gym. However, I have lost a lot of strength and weight and I can’t do what I used to be able to. It feels so defeating. Now, I have days where I leave the court or the gym and feel far worse than I started. I just cry because I can’t do what I need to do to get the frustrations out. Instead, I’m just reminded of where I am at and what I am dealing with. I go through a mental, physical and emotional cycle…then grace comes in.
Giving yourself (myself) grace is just as important as giving others grace. Cry when you need to, take a nap, and don’t beat yourself up for any part of this. Your body is fighting a hard battle. You need to allow yourself space and grace when you are going through this. It isn’t going to be easy, it isn’t going to be pretty, but you are absolutely stronger than you think.
The team from Coolibar really helped me with this. They helped me feel less trapped by my diagnosis. I was able to get back outside and live in good faith that I was protected, rather than dealing with the constant fear of being in the sun. Their mission was exactly what I needed. They not only make clothing that keeps us safe, living and finding joy…their outreach and support reminds us that we are strong, we are BRAVE and we are fighters. They share their warrior stories so that we know that we’re not alone even though the statistics are scary. For that I’m grateful.
I have not been good at sharing my story, so when they asked, I was hesitant. When I was first diagnosed, my parents and a best friend were much better at it. It was because of them that I was introduced to Coolibar.
One of the reasons it was hard was because, as I was trying to process all of this, I kept hearing three things from people…
- You did this to yourself. You just loved being tan and outside too much.
- You will never be able to be outside much again, and you must be covered from head to toe.
- Oh, this is very treatable, it is no big deal. They can just cut it off.
None of those three things should ever be muttered to someone in my position. The amount of guilt, shame, embarrassment, sadness and disappointment in myself that those words brought to me was indescribable. That is why I stuck to what I know best “don’t talk about it, just deal with it”. When I started sharing my story with Coolibar they helped me overcome these negative thoughts. I know they’ve done the same for many others working through unjustified guilt.
Being vulnerable, letting others in, and sharing your story can help yourself, and someone else. That is why I did this. Skin cancer is hard, no matter how strong you are, and it can also make you feel like you are the least strong person on the planet! Sharing can also bring support, love, and care into your life—which we need when we are going through something challenging. Every single little piece of kindness means so much to me right now. Every kind word, every encouraging word, and every prayer… means everything because I am so grateful for it. It carries more weight than it ever has. You learn what really matters, what is important, and what deserves your attention versus what doesn’t matter.
I’ve had to block out some shame and negativity to get through my diagnosis and treatment. But that’s okay. You can say ‘NO!’ to people, places, ideas, thoughts…that aren’t helpful or bring you down. No is a complete sentence.
In an effort to support you, the person reading my story, in whatever you’re going through…
Know you are strong. You are loved. You are worthy. You have prayers and support. If you ever need anything, reach out for help. There is always someone. I’m here for starters! If I don’t have all the answers, I can offer an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. After losing my ‘cancer buddy’, my will to fight this is stronger than ever before. If you are on this journey, in this fight, and know others who have lost their battle… do it for them.