Recently I was invited to speak by The Promise Foundation at my middle school about skin cancer awareness and my personal battle with Melanoma last year. I’ve decided to post my talk on my blog to spread the wealth of information I have in hopes of saving another life.
Hello everyone and good morning. It’s so great to be back in the very middle school I went to, GW. A lot of things are the same, yet a lot has changed. The auditorium is exactly as I remember it, yet I had to buzz to get into the building. You and I were probably the similar type of student: If I could go to an assembly during the school day, I’d be pretty happy to have the opportunity to miss class. But the difference is, when I was at GW, we didn’t learn about things like skin cancer in school assemblies. Skin cancer wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today, when roughly 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer over the course of a lifetime.
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You probably don’t think about cancer. You’re young; that’s for older people, right? But, when it comes to skin cancer, most of the skin damage that causes it happens in your adolescent and teen years. Yes, the very ages you are right now. That sneaky skin cancer is notorious for making a fashionably late appearance, usually in your twenties and beyond—that diva! But the damage has been done long before that, which is why you should start taking preventative measures now.
So this morning, instead of texting your friends or checking your facebook or taking a nap, I sincerely hope that you’ll pay some attention and take something valuable away from this. Trust me when I say that this hour is a better use of your time than homeroom or science or social studies or whatever else you’ll be learning today that you’ll probably forget in future years and have to relearn in high school or college. Teachers, no offense! And students, please listen and think about what you learn today.
Approximately a year ago, I was diagnosed with Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. I was one of roughly 124,000 cases of Melanoma diagnosed in the U.S. in 2011. Almost 9,000 of those people died. Remember, this is just Melanoma, just one type of skin cancer, and these statistics only take into account the U.S., a very small portion of diagnoses and deaths when you consider the entire world. Still, 9,000 deaths of one of the most preventable cancers in one of the most educated nations is shocking to say the least.
I’m here to share a little bit of my story and offer some changes you can start incorporating into your life now, so you don’t become the next victims.
On Father’s Day last year, I was at my dad’s house with my family, and my stepmother kept looking at my face. “That mole looks really strange,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “It’s been changing in shape and size and color, but already two doctors looked at it and said it was okay.”
“I think you should get it checked again,” she said.
While I appreciated her concern, I had my skin—and specifically that spot—checked twice over the previous two years and the doctors didn’t think anything of it, so they didn’t take a biopsy, or sample, to send off to the lab for testing. So I kind of ignored the whole thing until I started getting texts from her and my father and stepsister… like “Did you make the appointment yet?”
If everyone needed peace of mind, fine, I would get it checked again. I kept procrastinating, but I finally made the appointment. It was the end of June, and I went to a different doctor. He would be the third to tell me that it looked okay, yet he took a biopsy so we could all be absolutely sure. It takes about a week for results to come in, but I thought I was fine, because now I had a total of three dermatologists that said it didn’t look abnormal.
So I’m having fun all week, it’s summer, the 4th of July, I’m not really worried about this. I skip into the doctor’s office so he can remove the stitch and tell me my results. His assistant took out the stich and my dad asked if the pathology report came in. A long pause later, she said, “Yes. The doctor will come in to talk to you about that.” Right then and there, we new something was wrong. The doctor came in, and as soon as he said “Melanoma,” I mentally checked out. I heard nothing else he said. I’m glad my dad was listening to the next steps, because I was in a state of shock.
What followed were many doctors’ appointments. So not fun. I had to have the melanoma removed and a significant area around it. And then after that, they could determine if they removed it all or if it had spread and we’d figure out what to do next from there. The problem with my Melanoma was that it was right by my ear, and because they have to remove a large portion around the actual spot, it meant that they would have to remove my ear.
Oh no. No. I said, “Dad, I’d rather have this spot near my ear than not have an ear.” I mean, seriously? Do I want someone to hack my ear off? What will it look like? Does this mean I won’t be able to hear? On the upside, I’d only need one earring every day, which is just perfect for me because I always seem to lose one of each pair. Kidding aside, the thought of no ear was sickening.
My story has a happy ending. I lucked out because we found a surgeon who figured out a way to take out less so I could keep that ear. However, he would need to remove a lot of skin from behind my ear and then sew that skin onto my face to cover the large area that he needed to remove from my face. Gross.
It was painful; it was disgusting. I was awake for the entire thing, and I could see everything they were doing. Even though I was numbed, I could still feel the blood pouring down my neck. And it smelled horrible, because the doctor was singeing my skin. Yes, he kept placing a hot iron on my face while operating to slow the bleeding and kill the malignant cells. It’s sort of ironic how the very thing that causes the cancer, a burn, is the same thing used to remove it.
The recovery was not too pleasant, either. But, two weeks later, I got the news that I was indeed cancer-free.
The media and people in general glamorize bronze skin. It makes you look prettier, healthier, it’s exotic, whatever. Then there are pop culture figures like the Jersey Shore cast that promote tanning beds, which, by the way, are a pretty efficient way to getting skin cancer. Hop in a bed in a tanning salon and you’ll be inviting skin cancer to invade your body.
Cancer is the extreme when it comes to sun damage, but over-exposure to the sun also causes ugly spots and premature wrinkles. I have enough freckles and moles, and I certainly don’t want more spots. Plus, why invite wrinkles to come early? Like, who wants to look leathery and aged in college? Those are supposed to be some of the best years of your life! Who wants a facelift at 30? If you take care of your skin now, hopefully you’ll never even want to get any facial work you’ll look so flawless.
I’ll be the first to admit I love a sunkissed glow. But at what cost? My ear? My life? Thank the lord there are so many options to achieving that sunkissed skin today, from self-tanners to bronzing powders (I personally bronze with glittery makeup), to professional spray tanning.
I would never say don’t pay your favorite sports, go to the beach, or spend time outside. I’m not saying you should live in a cave because the sun will kill you. (That’s just what my mother says to me now.) No. I’m saying that with the sun as strong as it has ever been—especially in the winter, believe it or not—you need to protect that skin of yours at all times. Wear sunscreen, wear a hat, and wear those really cool sunglasses. Yes. Because, and I only learned this last year when I was diagnosed, you can get skin cancer in your eyes. Mmmhmm.
Wearing sunscreen is something you should think of like brushing your teeth. Just another part of your daily routine.
Thanks for listening. I’m pretty sure you’ll be thankful later that you did.
Visit thepromisefoundation.org for more information