Monday

Don't Be Fooled by Your Complexion, the Sun is Not Your Friend (personal post)

I have always had a medium complexion and when I was younger, I was actually even darker because I allowed myself more sun exposure. In fact, I would easily get quite a few shades darker with just a few days of exposure. I have only burnt once in my life (literally) and I took advantage of the fact that my skin tanned and held a tan well--I liked the way I looked better overall, too. Keep in mind, I had grown up being educated to a degree about sun exposure so I always wore sunscreen on my face and sometimes on the rest of my body when not intentionally tanning. I really thought that because I didn't burn that it couldn't be as dangerous for me to tan as someone lighter and more apt to burn. After all, I have no known history of skin cancer in my family and my Dad and his family are from Hawaii where they get plenty of sun. And I protected my skin to some degree so that evened things out, right?

Well, it has been a gradual and eventually rough realization since my early 20's that the sun is not and will never be my friend. I admit that when I was younger I laid out and tanned in beds/booths for several years--predominantly between 16 and 20. By the time I hit 21 I realized that bombarding my skin with that much exposure was NOT a good idea. So I stopped and hoped that it wouldn't come and bite me in the behind later.

Late in 2012, I noticed a really odd mole pop up on my left arm. It wasn't initially super strange looking, just a teeny dark mole that was slightly raised (just about all of mine are flat ... and I am covered with them) and no bigger than the tip of a sharpened pencil. As weeks went by I noticed it start to morph, changing shape and color. I had grown up with an awareness of this type of thing and called a dermatologist immediately and was scheduled months out. It is very hard up here to see an in-demand dermatologist quickly for the first time unless you have something extremely bizarre going on and apparently a morphing mole isn't one of them. I waited it out through the fall and winter and finally had my appointment in early 2013. I watched as my mole continued to change a bit, growing more and more thankful for that upcoming appointment. It grew larger and then almost shattered--literally it looked like it shattered and split apart into these tiny segments.

If you've never had a dermatology appointment to have your skin checked for moles and abnormalities of this nature, it can be a bit daunting. You go over your entire sun history and have to strip down and they check the entire surface of your skin--literally. Apparently all of my other moles seemed fine, but the one I was concerned about my dermatologist was also concerned with. We talked about skin cancer and the need for a biopsy in my case to rule this out as it was definitely suspicious. We scheduled the biopsy and I remember thinking--what are the freaking odds? Of course I wondered if all my stupidity when I was younger had led to something unpleasant now.

My biopsy date arrived and I went in. I had a complete biopsy of the mole. In some cases they will only take part if they feel the risks are low or depending on the dermatologist. I had the entire mole, plus a circumference around it removed. My dermatologist was someone I had researched prior to seeing. His bedside manner is amazing and I'm thankful he was the one to do all of this for me. I waited for days for the results and finally got the call and was told to come in. Pathology stated my mole was "extremely abnormal". The doctor said they basically rate them on a scale and mine was essentially as abnormal as they get. It was determined it was most probably a Dysplastic Nevus (atypical but non-cancerous mole) of a specific variety ... which of course I'm blanking on at the moment. I was told to come back in 2 months to have the area in which I'd had the biopsy done re-checked. If anything changed in that area (for example, the mole started growing back) I was to come in immediately. I went back in today to have it checked and pathology had basically decided that despite the fact that I had, had the entire mole removed, it might be a good option to have a bigger area of the skin on my arm removed as sometimes it can appear that the entire mole has been removed when some of it still exists. My dermatologist went over several options with me as there is a risk with the type of atyipcal mole I have that it could in fact be cancerous after all or can become cancerous though it looks benign at the moment. One option would be having a larger area of my arm removed.

The area of my arm they would have to take would be several inches long and about an inch wide in a slender football shape. We're not talking a small area, just to be clear. He said the choice to have this larger area removed was a toss-up more or less. I could have it removed for nothing and end up with a large area to have heal and a pretty gnarly scar or I could choose not to have it done and potentially never have an issue with that site--or there was the off chance a bit of the mole was still in that area and could be or become cancerous. I thought it over and decided I'd wait until my next appointment in 6 months and if they didn't feel I still needed it (due to no changes on my arm) I wouldn't have it done. My dermatologist felt that was a good plan and again told me to come in immediately if anything changed on the site where I had my initial biopsy done.

On the drive home from this appointment I started to wonder if I'd made this choice based on vanity. Sure, I'd contemplated healing time and what a freaking pain it was just to have had the smaller site on my arm heal over weeks ... but had I really made the choice not to have this larger area removed because I didn't want a giant scar across my arm? I still don't know and I don't know if later I'll regret this or not. I tend to hyper-analyze and I'm sure this will be on my mind for some time. Perhaps I won't regret it, perhaps I will. Either way, I've been told to stay out of the sun and wear a high SPF daily--both of which I plan to continue doing. I'll also have to go in every 6-12 months (assuming nothing happens with the site on my arm) for the rest of my life to get checked.

I guess ... I want to share my story because it's so easy to forget how dangerous the sun can be. Especially if you're in the medium to dark range complexion-wise. I have fair friends that are very sun-careless as well. The risks of skin cancer naturally increase with your exposure. Throw in genetics and whatnot and you have to ask yourself, is it really worth it? Let's say nothing changes and I simply have to keep getting checked and never go through another biopsy or anything worse. I would have to say a resounding "no". Being tan was not worth the worry I'm experiencing now, whether or not anything more comes of it. I have never been careless about my kids' exposure on the other hand--they are always slathered with a good physical barrier sunscreen. And I've actually been told to keep my younger (extremely fair) son out of the sun as much as physically possible in addition to super high SPF on both kids.

Do I think everyone is going to get skin cancer just because they get some sun exposure? Obviously not. I do think there are known risks and it's good to be aware of them before making a choice regarding your own sun habits. Whether or not you choose to risk it is entirely up to you. My experience has obviously influenced my opinion. The one thing I will recommend for all of my readers is that you check yourselves for moles and keep track of ones you have no matter what your complexion or sun exposure is. Skin cancer is no joke. Even if you choose to tan or lay out or simply forego sunscreen on a daily basis--check yourself!

If anything looks off or if anything changes, make an appointment with a good dermatologist IMMEDIATELY.

Here is a link by the American Cancer Society regarding what to look for when checking yourself (which you should do once per month).

If anyone would like to share their story below please feel free to do so. I think it's much more effective when someone you "know" has had an experience with this type of thing. It makes it more of a reality.

I hope my story helps bring some awareness and I'll update things again should they change or after my next appointment for those interested.

Thanks for reading :)

14 comments :

  1. Thanks for sharing your story, Doria. I'm a fair girl and burn easily, but I will hold a tan once the burn heals. Since I got older and got tattooed, I've been careful with sunscreen but my years as a marine biology student spending summers in warm places definitely caused sun damage so now I am much more cautious! My mom just had to have a melanoma removed from her arm, which, like your story, is a big reminder to take care of our skin!

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    1. You're welcome and thanks for sharing! I hope you mom is doing well now :)

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  2. Great post, raising important awareness of being mole-aware

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  3. Thanks for sharing your story I've never thought of it that way. I like to go for walks and, without thinking about it, just leave the house without putting on any form of sunblock. I've had a few family members die from some form of cancer and never thought of how serious and important it is to put on sunblock. I'll make sure that from now on I put on sunblock on myself and my son.

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    1. It can be so easy not to think of it at times! I'm so glad this was helpful :) After a while your son will probably expect you to do it like mine lol. Before I can even get the sunblock out before they head out the door they ask, "Mom, where's the sunscreen?" Hopefully they'll maintain this habit even when they're old enough to put it on themselves (fingers crossed)!

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  4. I used to work in a laboratory researching melanoma, and it's sad to see patients end up with skin cancer. It's so easy to run out the door without applying sunscreen, and sometimes we all need a reminder that it really is important. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. It really is important! Thanks for reading ;)

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  5. Thanks for this post, Doria. I'm fair and in late 2011 I went in for my first complete skin check (You're not kidding...they check it ALL). By the end of January 2012, I had 7 biopsies and four areas removed! Scary! Now I'll go back to the derm every 3 months for the rest of my life! Having said that, I agree with your treatment plan. I think you made the right decision. :)

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    1. Thanks and you're welcome! I agree, it's nerve-wracking stuff :/ Hopefully so far you've gotten good results back? Gotta love the frequent full-body checks ;) It's a good thing though as delightful as it can be lol

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  6. Great post! I've had several moles removed to check for skin cancer - Definitely not something to fool around with!

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    1. Definitely agree! Hope everything's been good results so far!

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