I blame myself for getting cancer.
I’ve been going to the dermatologist for yearly check-ups since I was a teenager. I’ve had a few moles removed, but they were all benign. My mom had a history of basal cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer. I was aware of this, so I started going to the doctor.
I went for a regular check up in January 2014, and everything looked okay. After a few months, I noticed a mole on my upper right arm that just didn’t look right. It was only about the size of a pencil eraser, but its appearance kept changing.
I had this gut feeling that something was wrong, so I made another appointment with my dermatologist. I went in and she said it looked a little funny, so she recommended removing it for tests.
A week went by and I hadn’t heard anything. I was beginning to get anxious, as normally they call back within a couple days. Finally, I received a missed call and message from the doctor.
“Hi, Erika. It’s Dr. Kroh,” the message said. “Um, just give me a call back as soon as possible.”
My stomach dropped. I knew, without her even having to tell me, that I had skin cancer.
I called right back. She was at lunch, and my wait began.
Finally, we connected, in what seemed like a lifetime later. I remember the moment distinctly. Melanoma, she said. The deadliest form of skin cancer. I wanted to cry, but took a giant breath, paused for a moment and figured it was just a tiny mole. I caught it early. It could have been a lot worse, right?
I was told surgery would be necessary to fully remove it, so I scheduled an appointment with a surgeon for two weeks later — the soonest they could get me in. I went in and sat down with the surgeon, joking around while still a tad nervous.
He mentioned that he doesn’t see too many people as young as me with melanoma. He then began to draw on me where the incision would be placed.
I looked to my shoulder. I was speechless. I knew at that moment that I blew it. I had made a huge mistake.
The incision was going to be nearly five inches long. I couldn’t believe it. I was expecting a quarter inch, and I got five. I asked, “Why do you have to take out so much?” He explained to me that they must mark one centimeter outside the mole, then three times the size of that to be sure to remove all of the cancer.
They also must make a long, vertical incision to avoid “dog ears” where the ends pucker up. He said I’d have to be a couch potato for a few days, avoid lifting anything for a few weeks, and avoid exercise for at least six weeks. I was so naïve that I had planned on going to my workout class the next morning.
I went in for surgery. I was under local anesthetic and looked away the whole time, although I could feel the pulling and tugging towards the end when they were stitching me up. The surgery took about an hour and then I was free to go, leaving with instructions on how to care for my 40 stitches.
After the surgery, I pretty much couldn’t do anything. I spent more than a month having friends and family carry my things for me as to avoid any damage to the stitches. It was miserable. It was the dog days of summer, my favorite season, and I was stuck hiding from the sun and avoiding sleeveless shirts so I would not gross anyone out, including myself.
The stitches were removed several weeks later, and a follow-up visit three months later took place.
So, here I am, almost a year later. I have had a lot of time to reflect and I can boldly say: I blame myself for getting cancer.
I watch the news, documentaries, read articles and I’ve heard stories — I knew about skin cancer, and I knew how to prevent it. I chose not to. Since I was 15, I have tanned in tanning beds. In high school, I would sometimes go twice a day. To say I was addicted is an understatement.
Once I got out of high school, I went about once a week, not including the many days lying out in the sun without sunscreen. It was a part of my life.
I believed that having bronzed skin overruled the possibility of getting skin cancer. This actually wasn’t one of those cliché moments where I thought it would never happen to me. I knew it would probably happen to me.
I am 23 years old now and a “cancer survivor.” A survivor of a cancer I could have avoided. I now have to go see the dermatologists every three months for the next three years, then every six months after that for the rest of my life. This is not over. I will spend my life knowing that it can, and will likely, come back. Who knows where the next one could be, and who knows if I’ll catch it in time.
I look back and think, “What the hell was I thinking?” It was irrational, selfish, and superficial thinking. How ridiculous to risk my life for what I thought was “beautiful.” So many people, who have done nothing wrong, have died from melanoma. How dare I deliberately use indoor tanning, which is known to be a major risk factor for melanoma.
You can take my story and shake it off, but here’s the truth: It’s not worth it. I had to learn that the hard way. This past summer was the first summer in years when I didn’t lay out at the pool on a weekly basis and the first fall when I didn’t tan in a tanning bed to maintain that summer glow. And guess what? I love my actual skin color. Sadly, I forgot what it even looked like.
I am now stuck with a permanent, giant scar on my right arm. On my wedding day, that scar will be there for everyone to see, and I am the only one to blame.
People stare at my scar and I can tell they want to ask what happened. And if they do, I will be more than happy to answer. It’s a story everyone needs to hear.
Not all cancers are preventable, of course, but mine was. So, please go see your dermatologists, ladies and gentlemen. Every year, 10,000 Americans die from melanoma. Just one indoor tanning session increases your risk by 20 percent.
If you’re really concerned about having darker skin, we’ve come a long way. Self-tanners aren’t what they use to be. Gone are the days of worrying about orange, stinky, streaky skin.
With that being said, my final advice is to embrace your own skin. Be thankful for the natural beauty you have been given. It’s that simple.