Like many people, I grew up loving the sun, beach and being outdoors. I craved that feeling of being warmed by the sun and having it bronze my fair skin. As a teen, I never thought basking in the sun and tanning my skin could be so destructive. When I was younger, it was all about just being tan. For me, that meant not always wearing sunscreen. Little did I know how stupid I was being.
There is a very unsexy side of sunbathing and tanning beds. And I can tell you firsthand that not caring for your skin is a big mistake. I hope that you can learn from my lesson, rather than go through it yourself.
My countless hours in the sun (many of which were unprotected) caught up with me eventually. What's crazy, too, is that I didn't even realize it at first. I had this dry, red, scaly patch on my forehead. Even though the spot had been developing for years, I didn't think anything of it. I thought it was just from touching my face or adjusting my hair. I kept it hidden under makeup and would just go about my day. And then, I was home over Thanksgiving with my family and wearing no makeup.
My brother, a physician, said, “What is that on your forehead?” I remember him examining me like doctors do, and he said very seriously, “I think you have skin cancer.” With a bit of attitude I said, “I don't have skin cancer!”
I then went to my dermatologist the following week to find out for sure. They took a biopsy, and sure enough, I had skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma). I couldn't believe it. I thought that only happened to people who were much older than me. I definitely was not prepared to have my head sliced open and cancer taken off of my face.
A week later, my dermatologist, Dr. Jaffe, performed Mohs surgery to remove the cancer. My forehead was cut open about the size of a quarter to remove the tumor. He told me that it was imperative I had it taken care of right away.
Dr. Jaffe said that the jury is out on whether my skin cancer was due to sun exposure at a young age, a burn or just chronic sun exposure over a number of years that made me predisposed. He performs about 10 Mohs surgeries a day, and told me that this specialized treatment offers the highest cure rate, but only if detected and treated early. His patients are normally in their mid-60s. I was 28.
The good news is, skin cancer is preventable and curable when caught early. Of course, we all want to be outside enjoying ourselves, but you have to be smart about the exposure you get.
So, let me be your lesson. Don't wait until you have skin cancer before you protect yourself and wear sunblock. Do it now. I don't like the scar on my forehead for vanity reasons. I get my picture taken and appear on TV for a living, so it complicates things. Sometimes, photographers ask me if I got into an accident and bumped my head because I have so much scar tissue in that area.
Other people tell me they can't even see it. On the flip side, my scar represents what I went through and definitely keeps me in check. Every day when I look in the mirror, it's a reminder to put on my sunscreen.
I don't want to scare people. I want to inspire them. Wearing sunscreen and protective clothing in the sun, and limiting your exposure to the sun isn't scary. It's smart. It's responsible. I wasn't smart or responsible in the sun growing up. I hope others can learn from my mistakes and be inspired to protect their skin, make regular appointments with their doctors and stay healthy.
Even if just one person benefits from reading my story, it makes my headaches from nerve damage during surgery and my scar worth it.
I wish I could have read a story like this when I was a teenager. It probably would have hit home a lot harder than just my mother saying, “Wear your sunscreen.”
To help prevent skin cancer, take the following precautions:
1. Wear chemical-free sunblock containing zinc and titanium every day. 2. Wear a hat and protective clothing. 3. Avoid being outside during peak sun hours. 4. Seek shade if possible. 5. Get an annual skin check by a dermatologist.
Remember not to be afraid to go to the doctor if you notice something changing on your skin, or that a mole has grown or changed in color. The sooner you see a doctor, the less likely it will be bad news.