For two weeks now, I’ve worn a two-inch bandage across my forehead to cover the gash where skin cancer had put down its ugly roots.
I’m 26, so the bandage and the cancer beneath it prompted a lot of awkward conversations with strangers who asked me what happened. Some of them expected to hear a drunken tale about how I wiped out at the bar.
The conversation almost always ends there, because most people, especially those my age, don’t want to talk about skin cancer or any of the bad things that could happen to them.
But we need to talk about it because this didn’t have to happen to me at such a young age, and it doesn’t have to happen to other people.
I didn’t know how emotionally, financially and physically exhausting such a diagnosis is, even when it is a non-melanoma cancer.
The moment my doctor told me I had it, my heart sank and my world spun. I had never felt fear like that before in my life, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
I was a stupid teenager who tanned a lot.
And I was one of the lucky ones, in the grand scheme of things. I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, the less serious form of skin cancer. That diagnosis came two years after my mom beat melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, and just a year after a rare melanoma claimed the life of my beautiful and brilliant friend Kelly.
She was 25 and had more passion and grit than 99 percent of the human race — she actually passed the bar exam while battling cancer. She deserved every minute of the next 75 years, but didn’t get a second of it.
Her death was shocking and devastating. I think of her all the time, but especially so over the past few weeks.
Though her story is rare, it’s becoming more common. The number of young women getting skin cancer has increased eight-fold since the 1970s, according to a New York Times report.
“So you’re really young; how’d you get this?” my dermatologist asked as he dug the cancer out of my forehead last Wednesday.
He usually does this surgery on older people. Not someone my age. I wanted to scream. Why me?
But I knew why. This was my fault.
“I was a stupid teenager who tanned a lot,” I told him.
I got skin cancer because I didn’t think being a fair-skinned redhead was good enough. I wasn’t confident in my natural skin, so I crawled into a tanning bed to cook my pale skin brown.
I got skin cancer because I listened to the messages from advertising and women’s magazines that told me I needed “that healthy glow” to be considered beautiful.
I got skin cancer because in high school all the “popular” girls hit the tanning beds hard before every dance — three times each school year in Kansas. And in college, most of the girls in my sorority tanned regularly, especially before date parties — basically all of the time.
Sure, not everyone tanned, but when you’re young, just a few girls and a few media sources hold a great power to shape — and distort — any idea of “normal.”
I’m sure there were skin cancer warnings in the magazines I flipped through as a teenager, but the messages telling me I needed to be tan were so much louder.
So it didn’t click, and I continued tanning until I was in my early 20s and really started piling on the sunscreen. And by then it was too late.
There is so much I didn’t know then that, unfortunately, I know now. I can’t change any of it, of course, but I can tell you things that might make young people think twice:
- Skin cancer is not an old person’s disease. It can strike and kill someone in their 20s. like it did with Kelly.
- Non-melanoma skin cancer is not something you have zapped off like a mole and it goes away. The process is painful. The wounds shocking. And none of it is pretty.
- Once you get skin cancer in your 20s, it’s likely you’re going to get it again or some other kind of cancer.
- Skin cancer changes you. It means a lifetime in fear of — and worry about — the sun. It means expensive creams, dermatologist appointments and ugly scars. The sun that used to serve as a sparkling, steady source of endorphins, energy and delight is now something to constantly worry about and protect yourself against.
- All it takes is a scab. My skin cancer looked like a zit that wouldn’t heal. Check every part of your body and demand a biopsy if you don’t feel right about a mark (another doctor looked at my skin cancer a year ago and said it was nothing to worry about).
- You regret every minute you spent in a tanning bed or in the sun with no protection. That tan that seemed so important then had no real impact on my memories or my experience.
- It hurts even more when you know it was your fault, when you realize you’re paying a heavy price for being a self-absorbed teenager.
I still see that we’re a tanning-obsessed culture. I live on an island in South Carolina — a place with nearly 12 months of sunshine. Yet there are more than a dozen tanning salons in Beaufort County. Several apartment complexes offer free tanning as a lure to young people. Even my gym has a tanning booth.
More than 30 million Americans use indoor tanning beds each year, including 2.3 million teens, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
A year ago, the FDA proposed a ban on the use of tanning beds by minors. It should have become law. The proposal has been dead in the water for a year now, but earlier this month, a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found the ban would save thousands of lives and millions of dollars.
As much as I want my story, Kelly’s story, and the stories of other young women’s to be heard and shared — used to scare teenagers out of tanning beds — I don’t think that will stop them.
Teenagers are too young to process risks and rewards. And young girls will always be helplessly vulnerable to things that make them feel beautiful, even if they’re dangerous. I certainly was. And that will never change.
But we can change the conversation.
We don’t have to live in total fear of the sun.
But we need to see the light.