My Melanoma

In high school, I LOVED going to the tanning bed.  My friends and I would go just about every week to keep our tans.  With unlimited membership, why not, right?  I felt better when I had a tan.  In the 90s, tanning bed salons were on every corner.  For $99, you could tan 365 days a year.  We didn't hear about the risk of skin cancer or early aging or perhaps we just didn't listen.  During my summer job, on my lunch break, I would go to the tanning salon, slather on the tan booster lotion, and catch 10-15 minutes in the tanning bed.  I still remember the exact smell of the tanning salon.  It’s hard to describe other than a tropical fruity smell, but if you have ever been to one, you know this smell.  It remimded me of summer.  Tanning continued during college, mostly just before our home basketball games, when we wore the white cheerleading uniforms.  In college, money was tight so we tanned outside or on the roof of our dorms.  We studied outside, listened to music, used tanning oil. We all had tans.  I loved it. 

I started medical school in August 2006.  During our first year, we had Gross Anatomy where students learn human anatomy in the cadaver lab.  That summer, before starting medical school, I was having a check-up with my primary care physician (making the doctor rounds while I was home for the summer).  I had noticed a dark mole on my right leg.  It was about the size of a pencil eraser and dark..almost black.  I had some freckles and moles but not many.  This one was definitely larger and darker than the others. Thinking that I was a healthy, young 20 year old, why would I think much more about it? I pointed it out to my primary physician who was also not worried about it. 

When I was home for Christmas break, I saw my dermatologist who had me on Accutane for acne in college.  I had TERRIBLE cystic acne when I was in college.  I hated my skin as much as someone could hate her skin.  I pointed out the mole on my leg.  At this point, I thought it had grown a little larger.  He said that we should biopsy it.  This was not my favorite plan because I don’t like being on the other end of needles.  However, it made sense.  The biopsy results came back when we were driving home from our Christmas vacation in Canada.  We were visiting my Grandmother who lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  I had picked up a wicked case of “food poisoning” the night before we left and had been up all night.  Once we crossed back across the American border, I turned on my cell phone and had a distressed voicemail from my dermatologist.  He said he had the biopsy results and that I needed to call him right away.  Ok.. I called him as we drove through North Dakota with the snow whipping across the flat highway.  I heard the words “urgent” and “plastic surgeon” and “malignant melanoma”.  I passed the phone over to my parents and they coordinated the details.  My Dad was an OB/GYN and my mom worked with my Dad as a Registered Nurse in the same building as the dermatologist so he knew them well. 

As soon as we were back home, I was in the plastic surgeon’s office – again on the other end of the needle as he numbed up my leg.  I missed this day of Gross Anatomy lab.  Ironically we were scheduled to dissect the leg that day, I believe.  My mom went with me.  I had another unchanged large mole in the center of my back that we decided to remove at the same time because I couldn’t monitor it, if it decided to change.  The two spots were painful for a day or two.  I took a Percocet that night and had the strangest dreams I had ever had.  I didn’t take any more of those.  I then went to see an oncologist who arranged a PET/CT scan which is a scan to detect cells that are in overdrive – usually cancer cells.  PET/CT scan was negative and based on the pathology specimen, I didn’t need to have any lymph node surgery or chemotherapy. Good news. 

Today, the scar on my leg is about 1.5cm wide and about 4cm long but the melanoma is gone.  It is flat, pale, and I usually forget about it.  I go to a dermatologist for routine skin checks every 6-12 months and have been cancer free for over 10 years.  Now, seemingly a million years since college, I get compliments on my skin.  Irony and relief make me smile because those comments remind me of the terror that acne used to cause me and the time I had melanoma.  I still have some break outs but with a healthy lifestyle and my ZO skin care, my skin is in much better control.  Mostly likely, I will have occasional congestion and break outs for the rest of my life.   

We know that the body stops making collagen and elastin in the skin when we are teenagers and those structural elements start to break down in the skin starting in our 30s.  This process speeds up with exposure of UV rays either from the sun or tanning beds leading to sun spots, fine lines, sallowness and wrinkles.  I have realized that getting skin cancer was the best thing for my skin that could have ever happened because I haven’t been in the sun or a tanning bed since my diagnosis.  It is harder and harder to stay out of the sun now that I live on the beach in Florida.  However, I don’t step outside without my sunscreen on. 

May was Melanoma Awareness Month.  Now that we are into early June and summer is officially here, please remember to wear sunscreen, be in the shade with a broad brimmed hat whenever possible, and see your dermatologist for any suspicious looking skin lesions for early diagnosis!                    

Kaete Archer, MD Facial Plastic Surgeon

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