Two years ago, at the age of 42, I had my first appointment with a dermatologist. Standing in her exam room, naked and vulnerable, I cracked jokes about having more moles on my body than there are stars in the sky. Instead of laughing, my dermatologist continued studying my skin with her dermatoscope until eventually taking a fine-tipped blue Sharpie marker and drawing a small circle around a mole on the left upper side of my back. Moments later, I was receiving a shot of lidocaine and listening as she told me that she was going to remove the mole, send it off to pathology, and someone from her office would call me in seven to 10 days with the results.
Truthfully, I didn't think much about my visit to the dermatologist after that. I had friends who went to the dermatologist religiously and they were frequently having moles removed. For them, everything always turned out fine. Plus, I had no family history of skin cancer, and for the past few years I had been good about applying a strong SPF when I knew I was going to be out in the sun. That's why, when my dermatologist called me as I was parking my car at the grocery store the week after my appointment, I didn't think anything of answering the call.
The American Cancer Society estimated that in 2021, there were about 207,390 newly diagnosed cases of melanoma in the United States. Never in a million years would I have imagined that I would have been included in those statistics, but sitting in my car on that sunny afternoon, I listened quietly as my dermatologist told me that I had Stage 1 melanoma.
For the next few minutes, I listened as she explained to me the steps that I would have to take to ensure that all the skin cancer had been removed, but I could barely hear her. They say when people receive bad news, they enter a state of shock and go completely numb. I suppose that's what happened to me, because the only thing I could think about was how my morning had started off like every other morning, and a few hours later, someone was telling me that I had cancer.
When I was growing up, my mother lived by the mantra, "Tan fat is better than white fat," and I bought into it. Together, we spent entire summer days floating on rafts in our backyard swimming pool, slathering on Hawaiian Tropic Dark Tanning Oil and comparing tan lines. In the winter, we'd purchase packages at the local tanning salon and share small samples of Swedish Beauty tanning accelerator. Falling asleep in the tanning bed to the hum of the giant bulbs was a magical experience and some of the best rest I've had to this very day.
As I got older, I got smarter about the sun, but the damage to my skin was already done. Most melanomas are from exposure that happened years ago, and looking back at my history with the sun, it's no wonder that I ended up having skin cancer.
Luckily, my melanoma was caught in the early stages and a follow-up visit with my dermatologist, in which she removed a relatively large portion of the skin from that area of my back and ensured that the cancer cells had not spread. Most of us already know the major sun safety rules, but the reality is that few of us put them into practice. It's human nature to assume that awful things can't or won't happen to us, but I'm here to tell you that way of thinking is dangerous. It's now my mission to educate people about the importance of sun safety and remind them that by following a few simple rules, they can greatly reduce their chances of ever being diagnosed with melanoma.
• Never, ever, use a tanning bed.
• Try to avoid peak sun hours, which are from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. It's during these hours that UV rays are strongest and most damaging.
• If you absolutely must be outside during peak sun hours, look for the shade, wear protective clothing and always use an SPF 15 or higher (yes, even on cloudy days and in the winter).
• Embrace sun hats, sunglasses and rash guards.
• Schedule regular appointments with your dermatologist. For a long time, I was under the assumption that dermatological appointments were a luxury; this could not be farther from the truth. My dermatologist literally saved my life, and I am beyond thankful to her and her staff for helping me through the scariest ordeal I've ever experienced.
Lana Shovlin loves the smell of Coppertone sunscreen. She is a now-and-again freelance writer who lives in Springfield with her husband and three awesome kids.