The only reason I learned I had skin cancer is because of small talk.
I pointed out a long, healed scar on my coworker's arm during a three-hour train ride and asking her how she got it. We had so much time to kill and it seemed like such a simple question, but her response jolted me: She told me she'd had melanoma at 30, and asked if I'd ever had a skin check.
It dawned on me that I never had. I was in my mid-twenties, grew up in Southern California, and hadn't seen a dermatologist since I graduated from high school. But it had never occurred to me until that moment that skin cancer could actually happen to me (not at 26, anyways).
When I reluctantly answered that I hadn't, her concern was palpable. She told me my fair skin and light eyes made me more susceptible to skin cancer, and the sound of the "C-word" sent me into a panic. The next morning, I booked an appointment.
Two weeks later, a dermatologist scanned me from head to toe with a magnifying glass. When she told me I was in the clear, I exhaled in relief as she went on to describe the three different types of skin cancer to look out for in the future: squamous, melanoma, and basal. As she described their characteristics, my stomach dropped. I pointed to a pimple-sized bump I'd had on the crown of my head for about a year, and her tone instantly shifted. Upon further examination, she asked to biopsy the growth.
The lab results results confirmed it was cancerous. After the initial wave of hysteria (there were quite a few tears) I started to reflect on how flippant and reckless I'd been when it came to sun safety. My family enjoyed tropical vacations for years, and I would bake in the sun–sometimes only applying sunscreen once a day (...and only 30 SPF. What did I expect to happen?!).
I brought an entourage to the hospital on the day of my surgery. My mom flew out to be with me, and my boyfriend and sister joined as additional moral support. The surgery was long. My surgeon recommended the Mohs method, a technique to remove cancer cells that is done in stages (in my case, two). Layers of tissue were removed then examined in an on-site lab to determine if any basal cells remained. I sat in the waiting room with an open wound for around two hours awaiting the results. When they suggested there was more, deeper in my scalp, the surgeon went in for round two. The entire process was arduous and painful (I distinctly remember smelling burning skin as they cauterized the wound), but most traumatizing was the moment the nurse shaved off the front portion of my hair. The entire procedure might have been miserable, but the relief I felt when the surgeon reported that they had removed all of the cancerous cells was completely worth it.
It took months for the scar to heal and over a year for my hair to grow back. I researched, devoured articles, and listened to podcasts about skin cancer prevention. My learnings? Get to know your skin. Self-exams are crucial and keeping track of the size of your visible moles and marks is a great first step to taking care of yourself.
I realized that the warnings had always been out there, but I'd never taken them seriously. I'd always preferred to be sun-kissed (or even sunburnt) which, in retrospect, was irresponsible and short-sighted, and I promised myself to drastically change my habits.
Since the surgery, I've incorporated sunscreen into my daily routine and tend to avoid situations where I'll be in direct sunlight for too long (kind of tough since I moved to Los Angeles in January!). Every time I look in the mirror, I see my T-shaped scar staring back at me, a blaring reminder to apply sunscreen, limit my sun exposure, and take care of my skin. It makes me feel like a warrior–and gives me permission to lecture my friends and family about the importance of protecting yourself from too much sun.
I still enjoy the sun, but these days you can find me enjoying it from under an umbrella, applying SPF 50...for the fourth time that day.