I grew up in the Caribbean, where it was 85 degrees and sunny year-round.
I absolutely loved the beach and the sun. Every chance I had, I was tanning. To me, the darker the better, and of course, the sexier.
Unfortunately I grew up watching my mother do this, so I thought it was okay. In the 90s and early 2000s, there wasn’t as much talk about skin cancer as there is now. I honestly never thought anything about it.
I was in high school, and I didn’t care about wrinkles or sun spots and I certainly never thought about skin cancer before.
When I left home for college, I spent the next few years in Florida, where I continued tanning and spending countless hours in the sun. During the winters, when it got colder (yes, even in Florida), I was depressed.
I felt pale, unattractive and I also had a physiological addiction to the sun that made my mood change when I wasn’t in it. It was like I needed the sun to function.
This is when I discovered tanning beds. A friend of mine was addicted to going, and despite the rule that you could only go once a day, she found a way around that: she went to two different salons daily.
When I tried it, I loved the feeling. It made me happier and reminded me of my days laying outside on the beach. The only problem was that it gave me headaches.
And then the moles appeared.
I started getting small moles where I had never even had freckles. The first time I visited a dermatologist, she took one look at my stomach and said I had a pre-cancerous mole. She took it off on the spot.
But, that didn’t resonate or deter me. Pre-cancerous? What did that mean? To me, it meant that the mole could or could not turn into cancer. No one really knew. I figured she was just being paranoid and extra cautious.
When I graduated college and moved to New York City, I spend all summer trying to regain my tan and all winter finding more tanning beds, while trying to control the headaches.
As my boyfriend watched me do this, he told me I was crazy and that I needed to be careful. He said I was going to ruin my skin, or worse, get skin cancer. But the words went in one ear and out the other.
I never used SPF, I used oil. Often I would burn, but then it turned that beautiful golden brown and I was happy.
Then, a few years ago, my father was diagnosed with skin cancer. As we awaited the biopsy results, it was the first time I felt some sort of fear. The reality of skin cancer started to penetrate my mind. I wondered if I could possibly get it, or worse, have it, too.
And then his results came back. It was melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. We didn’t know how deep it was, but when I started researching this cancer, I discovered that once it reaches the bloodstream, you never know how it will metastasize.
Thankfully, the great dermatologists in New York were able to cut out the melanoma, and they reassured us that he was safe.
This experience frightened me and the reality of skin cancer became very real. This was enough of an eye opener to make me change my habits and thoughts about the sun.
Nowadays, I wear sunscreen on my face daily and I choose makeup that contains sunscreen. I even try not to leave the house without a hat.
If my shoulders are exposed to the sun, I always have on sunscreen with at least SPF 15. It has been years since I last saw a tanning bed, and I visit my dermatologist for a skin cancer check twice a year.
If you are a sun lover like I was, don’t make the mistakes I did.
Had I not experienced melanoma with my father, I would probably still be in the sun daily with no protection. I might even have skin cancer myself by now.
It’s scary, it’s real and it can happen to you, no matter your age.