By: Rachel Ventura
As the summer months creep closer, I’m excited for the promise of warmer days and outdoor fun, but I am also filled with anxiety about the same things. You see, the sun and I have a love/hate relationship. Here’s why:
Soon after I became pregnant with my daughter, a growth appeared on my leg. I showed it to my doctor and he told me it was a dermatofibroma. He said I had probably bumped my leg or had been bit by a bug, and that it was nothing to worry about. I couldn’t remember either of those things happening, but I did just what he said, I didn’t worry. (Surprising for me, I know!)
The growth got bigger throughout my pregnancy. I showed it to my doctor a few more times, and he continually told me it was nothing and not to worry about it. Again, I did just that. He seemed very certain that it was a dermatofribroma. He never once said, “It might be,” or “Maybe you should see a dermatologist,” or anything like that. He said, “This is what it is. Don’t worry about it.”
We went to a birthday party that May, almost a full year after the growth had appeared. It was a hot day, so I wore capri pants. The growth was on my lower shin, so it showed when I wore these pants. I’m not sure if they actually were or not, but I felt like a few people at the party were looking at the growth. It made me uncomfortable. It definitely wasn’t a pretty sight. At that point, it had gotten pretty big. It was a pinkish-red color and looked like a mix between a mole and a wart. It was not pretty. I wouldn’t blame them for looking. So, at my next doctor’s appointment, I asked if I could have it removed. He said yes and referred me to a plastic surgeon.
The plastic surgeon said he thought he agreed with my doctor. He said he saw a lot of dermatofribromas in that area on women, and the marks usually came from women nicking themselves while shaving. That made a lot more sense to me than bumping my leg or a bug bite, so I was happy with that explanation. However, he did say that my mark was bigger than any he had ever seen and the color was a little different, so he was sending it to the lab for testing. He didn’t seem overly worried. I had been told for a year that it was nothing, so I didn’t have a care in the world. I had a few stitches and would have a scar, but I didn’t care. The thing was gone and it was all over with, or so I thought.
I went back 10 days later to have the stitches removed and the nurse told me the doctor was in surgery and he would call with my lab results. I was a happy girl! I remember getting home, looking at my little scar that was left behind, and thinking, “I’m so happy I got that thing removed! Now I don’t have to worry about it at all anymore!”
Then, at 5 o’clock that night, as I was sitting on the floor playing with my daughter, the phone rang and my life changed. It was the doctor with my results. I don’t remember much from that conversation. I only heard a few words. “Sorry. Melanoma. Spread. Large. Surgery.” I remember the doctor asking if I had any questions, and I didn’t know what to say. I was in shock.
We got off the phone and I went straight to the computer. I typed in “Melanoma” and clicked on the first website that came up. It hadn’t even hit me yet that it was cancer. The first thing the website said was “Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Once it has spread, it is very difficult to treat.” I shut off the computer, sat on the floor, and balled my eyes out. All I could think about was how this thing had been sitting on my leg for over a year because I was told not to worry about it, and how it was probably spreading its evil self all over my body. I was thinking about my poor husband planning my funeral and my sweet baby girl growing up without her mother. No one should ever have to think these things, but it was all I could think about. It was horrific.
The next day I spoke to the plastic surgeon, who was already working with the head of surgery and the head of oncology, for my case. They had a plan for me and were wasting no time. I was to have a PET scan to determine if the cancer had spread. And, because of how big the mole was, I was to have surgery to have a wide excision to remove a large area of my leg. During that surgery they would also remove lymph nodes from my groin, again, to be sure the cancer hadn’t spread. It all sounded so fun.
The PET scan was scary, but the results were good! It showed no cancer spreading, but I still had to undergo the surgery. Luckily, the surgery also went well. They removed a large area of my leg from the area where the mole had been and took a skin graft from my thigh to cover it. They removed 3 lymph nodes from my groin. It took quite a while to recover and the scar is on my leg to this day, continuously healing. But thankfully, the cancer had not spread. No further treatment was needed. Thank God.
I was so thankful that someone may or may not have been looking at my leg during that party. Thank goodness I had been self-conscious about it. I typically never wear shorts, so thank goodness the mole was not 2 inches higher on my leg or it may not have shown when I wore capris, and I may never have asked to have it removed. If not, who knows how long that thing would have stayed on my leg or how long it would have taken for the cancer to spread and for me, ultimately, to die. Scary. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason.
Throughout the whole ordeal, I was asked many times if I was, or ever had been, a lover of the sun. The answer is no. I don’t like the beach and never have. I don’t like to sweat or be hot, so I never spent too much time in the sun. But I also almost never wore sunblock. And…I had used tanning beds. Not a lot, but it obviously doesn’t take much. People who have used tanning beds, even just once, are 75 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never tanned indoors. I went tanning before my wedding so I wouldn’t look “washed out” in my white dress and so I wouldn’t burn on our honeymoon in Jamaica. Now when I look at my wedding photos, instead of feeling happy and nostalgic of one of the happiest days of my life, I feel sick to my stomach because I was tan, and the days I spent in the tanning bed to look that way gave me cancer. It shouldn’t be like that.
I had genetic testing done and I luckily do not have the gene for melanoma- such great news. Although my kids did inherit my fair skin and hair, it is a huge relief to know that they are not genetically predisposed to this nightmare. With proper awareness and protection, this disease can be prevented.
So, I am now a huge believer in sunblock and I am quite anal about it for my kids and myself. I never get tired of walking into a place and having someone tell me we smell like sunblock. It’s truly the best compliment I could ever get. I almost always have a bottle of SPF 50 in my bag and I am always willing to share.
I know that people are able to make their own decisions regarding the use of sunblock and tanning beds, but I will always voice my opinion on the subject. May is Melanoma Awareness month, but I try to educate people all year long. Just a month after my surgery, my family and I participated in a walk to benefit Melanoma Education. I was proud to be there as a melanoma survivor, but there were way too many people there walking in memory of someone who had lost their battle to melanoma.
I get a lot of advice and inspiration from MelanomaGirl (or MG for short), a local woman who shares her struggles and triumphs with melanoma. I love a tip she recently shared, which I cannot stress enough: “Always be sure to wear at LEAST a 30 broad spectrum sunscreen every day and REAPPLY often.” A lot of people think that if it is not super hot out, or they are not at the beach, they don’t need sunblock- so not true! The sun is very powerful, even if it’s not directly in your face. Cloudy days, cold days- every day of the year, sunblock is needed.
Something else that I learned from MG is to be proud to be pale. This is such a hard thing to come to terms with. The media portrays being beautiful as as being tan. A “healthy glow,” a.k.a. being tan, is considered beautiful in our society. This needs to change. If you are naturally tan, that is beautiful. But if you are not, embrace it! Love your skin! Pale is beautiful! I love to see celebrities like Emma Stone, Amanda Seyfried and Taylor Swift rocking their beautiful, pale skin!
The warmer summer months are tough for me. I don’t want to hide myself and my children from the sun, and I also don’t want to deprive them of the fun things you can do in the warmer weather. But at the same time, it’s really scary for me. After 3 years, I am slowly letting go of my fears of the sun. My daughter loves the beach and we plan on going a lot this summer. As well as being afraid of the sun itself, I’ll never be fully comfortable wearing a bathing suit (who is, really?), but not because of my belly or my thighs, or the usual reasons. Rather, it’s because of my shin. I was left with a huge hole in my leg. It’s very hard for me to show my leg but I am getting better. I’m sharing this picture not only as therapy for myself, but to possibly be an eye opener for those of you who do not wear sunblock, or worse, who use tanning beds.
I may have a big, ugly hole in my leg, but looking on the bright side, I was left with my life. My husband didn’t have to lose his wife, or my daughter her mother. I was able to have another child, a beautiful baby boy, and I am enjoying watching both of my kids grow. Every single day is a gift, as well as an ongoing battle. I’ve had 4 other moles removed that were pre-cancerous, I see the oncologist every 6 months and my dermatologist every 4 months. But, for now, I am able to live, covered in sunblock.
My battle with melanoma was horrible, but I was lucky. It didn’t spread and I didn’t have to go through chemo or radiation. I got out easy. I share my story and try to educate others so that no one else has to go through the same thing, or worse. So please, please, please, please, please, always remember MG’s “3 L’s” when heading out the door: LATHER on lotion, LAYER on clothing and LIMIT your exposure. It is also so important for everyone to see a dermatologist once a year, and to share any new or changing moles or growths with them. Your skin will thank you.