How Melanoma Changed My Life (Guest Post)

Being that today is our last beach day, I thought it would be fitting to feature something a little more serious today about the dangers of the sun/tanning.

I’m honored to have Alexandria here to tell her story.

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I must admit, I feel empowered and nervous about writing this blog post. I’m nervous because I don’t want this to, in any way, come across as though I’m telling you what to do. A year ago, I never thought I would be affected by this. I was an occasional tanner at the tanning salon. Most of the time I did two weeks before a vacation, because I thought that would be healthier than having to worry about a burn at the beach. I knew the warning signs. I knew I burned occasionally, but I still went ahead and did it.

Last summer was the best summer ever in a long time. I published my first novel and had two amazing beach vacations planned: Key West, FL and Fort Myers Beach for a week, and Tybee Island (twenty minutes from Savannah, GA) at a beach house for another week. All with family, and all with a type of excitement leading up to them that I can’t explain. I burned badly all over my body during my first two days in Fort Myers. I treated it like any other burn: cold shower, lots of aloe, and carefully putting my clothes on because it hurt. A month later, we went to Savannah and I was ready to experience the entire city. My book is set in Savannah, GA so I took full advantage of just being outside all day long. My first day, I burned again. Not as bad as in Florida, but still, it set me back. 

Fast forward three months. I noticed a change on my shoulder. I am covered in freckles/“beauty marks” as my mom taught me to call them. One freckle had changed. It was red around it, and it looked like someone had smeared it with their fingertip. I knew something was up. 

I made an appointment at my dermatologist’s office. The doctor came in, checked my skin out and when he got to my shoulder, he paused. He pulled his bigger glasses on and started examining. It felt like he was looking at it for at least a full minute, and the unknown was killing me. Then he said, “I don’t like how this looks. Let’s get rid of it. It’s probably nothing, but I don’t take chances.” A numbing shot and biopsy procedure later, and I was left with a dime sized hole on my shoulder. One week of waiting for results, he said. It took two and I received the phone call at 8:00AM before work. My mom came in and sat with me as he told me the results. It was skin cancer. And not the kind that you remove the cancer and it’s done. But melanoma. The kind that has the potential to kill you. Over the next month, I had a few consultations that led up to my surgery. I tried to be strong and not concentrate on the what-if’s and as hard as it was, I started each day positive. 

I had to first go to the radiology department of the hospital and have radioactive dye injected around the cancer to see which lymph nodes were affected. That would determine which lymph nodes they took out: the ones in my neck, under my armpit, or closer to my breasts which they were worried about. I have never felt pain like that before; the injections were five bubbles of dye surrounding the cancer. 

After that procedure, I was prepped for what would be an almost three hour surgery. I wasn’t scared, somehow, of the surgery. I wish I could go back and thank the nurses that rubbed my arm and held my hand as the oxygen mask went on. The comfort it brought eased my nerves. I woke up three hours later, groggy and anxious. My entire left shoulder, neck and chest were numb. I found out that I didn’t just have one long incision, but three. One was 5 inches, from the cancer, and two 3-inch incisions where they took my lymph nodes out.

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Recovery was terrible and long. Laying down was impossible for weeks and I couldn’t move my left arm. Christmas Eve we got the phone call: negative. All of the cancer was gone, but it had been caught just in time because it had shown signs of regression which meant it was larger before and my body had fought it all on its own. The best Christmas present ever, my family and I said. 

Eight months later and I still have pain. But in a way, that melanoma saved me. It made me look at things a little differently and it made me appreciate my body a million times more than I had. My body fought for me when I didn’t even know it. I promised myself after I could move my arm freely again, I would get healthy as a thank you to my body. I started my health journey in April. I worked out four times a week, an hour a night and made it a part of my lifestyle. I watched more closely what I ate and put into my body because it deserved the best.

That’s how melanoma changed my life.

I’m down about twenty pounds since last year and you had better believe I am just getting started. I now have to wear a minimum of SPF 30 when I’m outside and I always have sunscreen on my face. I will forever not be allowed to tan intentionally and will have to be careful the rest of my life. And the scars I have, they have faded but they are there in my face every day as a reminder. People stare, and that’s okay, but I would give everything to have a scar-free neck and shoulder.

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Tanning is not worth the pain, worry, and risk. It’s just not. I have a few friends who tan for the reason I used to and I have to bite my tongue to not say anything. I get their reasoning, but they don’t understand the consequences. I swore it would never happen to me, but it did.

Do yourselves a favor, ladies and gentleman and put some sunscreen on. Don’t go tanning in a tanning bed and just be smart. Life is too short and we need to treat our bodies better. They just might save our lives.

Thank you, Jessica, for allowing me to share my story on your blog. I hope readers find this a revelation and will take it as a starting point in being healthy.

You can find me on twitter, facebook and instagram.

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Wow, I am speechless. Thank you again Alexandria for sharing this with me & my readers – I know they will find it inspiring. You are such a brave lady! I cannot stress the importance of this topic enough.

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  • Thank you so much for this post. I lost my father to melanoma 15 years ago, and always try to be an advocate on the subject. Sadly, it’s not something many people think about as much as they should. I appreciate Alexandria sharing her story!

    (And, sorry for the event plug… but there is a 5k scheduled this fall, benefiting the Melanoma Foundation:
    http://events.melanoma.org/faf/home/default.asp?ievent=1105743)

    • I don’t mind your event plug – I actually appreciate you sharing! I am going to have to check that 5K out for sure! Sorry to hear about your father Rachel, that’s so sad. I also lost my father to cancer (not melanoma, but still), so I know how rough that is. I’m glad you’re using it in a positive way though to be an advocate.

    • Rachel, I am so sorry to hear about your father. I agree, Melanoma is something people forget about. We hear about skin cancer, and it’s removed and done with. But this is so much more than that.
      Thank you for sharing that event! I will be looking into it and hope I will be able to participate.

      love,
      alexandria

  • Thank you so much for sharing your story! Sun exposure is no joke! I’m so glad your cancer was caught in time and wish you healing in the future. One of my good friends was diagnosed with melanoma at 19. It was SO scary but thankfully she’s making a full recovery.

    • Thank you for the kind words! It is definitely no joke, and not worth the tan! I am glad too, and am glad your friend is okay! It is so scary how it effects us so easily, and so young. Thank you for taking the time to comment!

      love,
      alexandria

  • This is a wonderful post and reminder to everyone about the risks of of melanoma. I am VERY fair skinned and covered in freckles. We joke that I think about the sun and burn. I have had a few spots removed over the years, even though I am VIGILANT about wearing sunscreen every single day, even in the dead of the winter. I’m glad you are cancer free!!

  • Hello, I read your story .. I’m an Italian girl, and a month ago my brother discovered he had a melanoma!
    Monday removed the lymph node and now we are here waiting .. I have a lot of fear, but I try to be confident ..

  • This story definitely made me cringe. Getting a tan is part of my summer routine. I try not to burn but it usually inevitably happens at least once. I’m really skeptical about whether slathering on sunscreen is healthy though when the skin is the largest organ and absorbs so much. I really need to make it a priority to research and look into the most natural sunscreens on the market.

    • Holly – I totally know where you are coming from with the sunscreen thing. I agree that it’s probably not healthy with all the chemicals, but I think in comparison, it’s the better option. I do also want to research some natural sunscreens – maybe I’ll even do a follow up post on that haha!

      • I would LOVE to learn more about sunscreens. But I agree, out of all the things we put on our bodies, I am willing to risk it with sunscreen if it keeps me from having melanoma.

        love,
        alexandria

  • Thank you so much for this guest post! So glad that you are cancer free! I have a lot of “beauty marks” as well and haven’t always been the most careful with sunscreen and such.

    Over the past year I’ve had 3 excisions and now I’m really scared of getting skin cancer. The derm and I have pretty much become best friends.

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