It’s spring break, junior year in high school. I am 17 years old, on a cruise in the middle of the Caribbean with my parents and my best friend soaking up every. sunray. possible. That week was so memorable for so many different reasons. I was young, I was carefree and I didn’t have a worry in the world.
In the weeks following my return home, my family and I found out that I had melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. I was 17, naturally tan, with few freckles—the complete opposite of a typical melanoma patient. How could it be?
Most likely my melanoma was heredity—my mother had her own battle with melanoma in her early 40s, so I guess it was in my blood. The site of my mole was the underside of my left forearm, a place that rarely sees sunlight. Regardless, the path of my life changed after that diagnosis, and the road to inner peace has been long and tiring.
The months and years that followed were dark times. Most months were taken up by needles, stitches, doctors, and nurses. My family found me the best dermatologist and I hated her. She could have been Mother Teresa and I would have hated her. She was very pale and smiled too much. She often told me that she understood me and what pissed-off 17-year-old girl wants to hear that?
Being young and dealing with something traumatic is a dangerous combination. I lived at the beach and now I was told I couldn’t go. My friends were tan and beautiful and compared to them I felt pale, ugly and covered in scars.
I fell quick and hard into a haze of Jack Daniels. Every time was a good time to drink and ponder the reasons my own body was trying to kill me. The scars on my body were constant reminders of something I wanted to forget. I didn’t tell many people what I was going through because I was embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to think I was sick or to treat me differently.
I felt like I could never move forward because I was constantly reminded that this was my life. Every three months I went to the dermatologist and had more moles removed. More times than not I got the call that the mole removed had pre-cancerous cells present. While my doctor was elated we caught it, I, as always, wanted to punch her in the face. I felt doomed and defined by cancer.
Like any young pissed off woman would, I decided to fight my body back and go to the beach constantly without sunscreen and go to tanning beds all winter. In my mind, this was me refusing to surrender to what was true and evident. This only caused me more pain by seeing the people I love cry and beg me to stop, my friends purposely dragging a very large umbrella to the beach every time we went and begging me to lay under it, and my parents completely disgusted when I told them I was wearing flannel pajamas in the summer because I was cold, not because I had the worst sunburn of my life underneath (they were smart and knew but let me sweat it out anyways).
At some point, life changed for me. I remember waking up on sunny summer mornings and walking outside to smell the grass and feel the sunlight. I remember taking long drives in the country with my windows down during sunsets and I remember laughing until I cried with my loved ones. Eventually I saw that the simplest of things are the most beautiful and my actions were not only killing my body, but my soul, too.
I had to go through the dark to get to the light. I stopped tanning and started fighting, the right way, for my life. I took my public speaking class in college as a platform to spread awareness about protecting yourself from the sun. I still went to the beach (because it is as close as you can get to heaven) but I made it my mission to always have sunscreen and make sure everyone with me was protected as well. I take every opportunity to tell my story and hope that young women will stop tanning and start realizing how unhealthy a tan really is. I remind whomever will listen that skin cancer isn’t something that happens only to your grandpa—it can happen to anyone and unless you take care of your skin, it will probably happen to you at some point.
Each winter I am pale and beautiful, darling. My scars are my story to the world. They make me unique. Melanoma gave me a gift that the rest of the world doesn’t always have: appreciation. Not for the monumental moments in life but the small nameless ones, like a night spent deep into reading your favorite love story, or having your best friend sing “No Scrubs” next to you on karaoke night, or days spent laughing with your parents in the home you grew up in. Like cooking dinner for your boyfriend, or snuggling your dogs on a cool Sunday morning before church. Those are the moments I fight for. Those are the moments I refuse to stop fighting for.
The past eight years have been a battle. I don’t beat myself up about the way I handled things, I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening and I couldn’t see the good that could be found. I was vain and clueless. Skin cancer isn’t a game and I just thank God that even though I treated it as such, I won. I had the most amazing parents that got me to every appointment and cried with me as moles were cut from every possible place (seriously…everywhere) and I had friends that would jump through a car window to punch some guy in the face who called me Casper. I had it all and I didn’t even realize it.
Don’t let the bad, ugly moments of your life kill you. Learn from my mistake. Don’t get so wrapped up in the darkness that you forget the light that surrounds you. This is life: It isn’t going to be easy, and if it is, I am sorry for you. Without pain, the world just isn’t as colorful. Embrace the things that happen to you in life, good and bad, because there is something good to come out of everything. Oh… and don’t forget to wear sunscreen.
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