Why you will never catch me sunbaking again

Why you will never catch me sunbaking again

Let’s talk sun exposure, skin checks and skin cancer - My top takeaways on my journey with skin cancer.

As the weather is warming up here in Australia and we approach summer it's time to talk about skin cancer checks. When was the last time you had your last skin check for skin cancer?  Did you know that Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world?  

Today I will be visiting my doctor to get stitches out from the surgery I had a week ago to cut out a skin cancer that was found on my scalp.    I feel so lucky to have found it as it was completely hidden by my hair, in an area that you would presume is not too affected by the sun.  How did I find it? I guess it was a freak thing and I thank the universe for guiding me to it. 

I shared a story on instagram last week on the day of my surgery and I had so many messages from people wanting to know more about what happened, so I am writing this post to share my story, but most importantly, I’m sharing my story to raise awareness of the importance of getting regular skin checks, and to dispel some myths about skin cancer based on my own personal experiences.   

I am a first generation Brazillian which means I was born with darker, olive skin.  ‘Sun worshipping’ has always been a part of my genes and a part of my culture.  My own grandmother and mother were the biggest sun bunnies I have known and used to sun bake all the time, never really getting sunburnt and always looking beautiful from their sun kissed glows.  I am not sure where it started exactly, but I somehow grew up with the fallacy that I was one of those people who would never have to worry about sun exposure because I have dark skin.    That’s the story I have been telling myself for all these years, anyway.

I have lived around the beach most of my life, and in my younger years, I always spent time in the sun.  During my late teens and early twenties between the ages of 18 - 22 years old,  I sunbaked a lot in my free time, not excessively, but I definitely enjoyed getting a tan. I even used the solarium a few times, as much as it now makes me cringe to admit.  When I was young I loved having a sun kissed glow and a beautiful tan, but like most people this age I was carefree and having fun and not once did I ever think of the repercussions of my sun exposure.   This period of my life is the only time I can recall a care-free attitude towards the sun and after I had my first child at 21 years old, I barely ever sunbaked because I was too busy with #mumlife.  As I'm sure all mothers can relate, opportunities for lying in the sun, reading a mag and relaxing when you have young children around is a rarity.

I have shared this part of my life with you simply to make clear that most of my ‘reckless’ sun exposure occurred during a short window in my life.  Now, approximately ten years later, I have had my first skin cancer cut out. Whether my skin cancer is a result from my childhood, my younger years, genetics or just plain bad luck, we will never know. However from my  diagnosis almost two months ago to where I am now after having my surgery,  I have learned so much about skin cancer.  The biggest and most confronting lesson for me during this time is that  a lot of my personal beliefs and stories about sun exposure and skin cancer have been completely wrong. Specifically I have learned:

What I have learned about skin cancer:

  • Skin cancer does not discriminate by the colour of your skin.  White, olive or dark skin, it doesn’t matter, you can still get skin cancer!   On this journey, I also discovered a couple of my darker skinned friends had skin cancers removed in their late twenties! I was shocked to know this and along with my own experience, it supports my point here.

  • Dr Google has some good information about skin cancer but it is very misguided and confusing.  Do not solely rely on any information on Google about skin cancer, speak to a skin specialist. 

  • Skin cancers are not text-book at all.  They come in a range of shapes, colour and sizes and to our naked eye, we wouldn’t be able to tell, this is why you need and expert to perform regular skin checks on your skin. The Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) that was found on my head was not pink, red, scaly or a sore that did not heal, as most information sources would describe a BCC.  My BCC was a big black/brown mole and it didn’t look too scary to me.    Which brings me to my next point;

  • Everything you think about the size, colour or shape about skin cancer is wrong, unless you are an expert of course. That big scary black mole on your back that you are worried about is probably not going to be a skin cancer, but maybe that tiny little scaly speck, or black spot on your neck is, but you completely overlooked it because you really do not know what to look for! This is why we need experts to look over our skin, because they know what to look for!

  • All types of skin cancers can be dark pigmented, not just melanomas.  

  • Only people who don't get skin checks have major issues with skin cancer.  If you get your skin checked regularly, you really don’t have anything life-threatening to worry about.

  • Don't always trust what a regular GP says about your skin.  Listen to your intuition and if you think there is something that should be checked, re-checked and re-checked again, DO NOT HESITATE!  My own doctor whom I have seen for years and looks after my whole family even told me not to stress about getting skin cancer because of my heritage and skin colour.   He is a great, well meaning guy with good intentions, and in no way am I criticising my doctor or the medical profession in any way when I say this. But in my particular case, my GP told me that it would be very unlikely that I would ever get skin cancer because of my heritage and skin colour.  A comment like this can create a false sense of security, but lucky my intuition has always been strong. 

  • Visit a specialist skin surveillance doctor, or skin specialist to get your skin check.  These guys are experts at detecting and treating skin cancer because it is all that they do.  Refer to my previous point as to why. 

  • When getting a skin check make sure they do a thorough check of your hair and scalp! And make sure you strip down to your undies as you want to have a proper look. I always wear my gym gear to an appointment, a crop top and some running shorts so I feel more comfortable to get my clothes off.

  • Solariums are really bad for increasing your risk of skin cancer!  Since my diagnosis and history with solariums when I was younger, I have looked at the statistics regarding solarium use and skin cancer.  When I did I called my mother and cried like a baby to her.  I spent the next two days in out and of a sobbing mess.  If you are reading this and have ever used a solarium, or you are still using them, please read my words right now and THINK TWICE! There are so many reasons why they are bad which I will not state here but if you really want the motivation to stop using solariums then I dare you to look up the statistics on solariums and skin cancer, but a word of warning, it's not for the faint hearted and may cause you unnecessary stress. 

I suffer from anxiety so when I went for my yearly skin check and saw the skin specialists reaction to the mole found on my scalp I went into panic mode. The skin specialist spent a good ten minutes with her little microscopic tool looking at what she found. I remember that  she didn't say much but she used the words ' yes, this mole looks concerning, we need to get a biopsy.’ After the biopsy, the seven days that followed why I waited for results was complete torture. I told myself a lot of stupid stories during this time, but I was most worried that it could possibly be a melanoma because of its shape, size and black colour. When I left the clinic after my biopsy I was told that a call back from the doctor would be bad news. It got to day six without hearing any news and I thought I had made it! Then I received the voicemail when I was hanging the clothes on the line one afternoon, my heart skipped a beat because I knew it wasn’t going to be good. But when I called the doctor back to hear it was only a BCC, I was so relieved! Never did I think I would respond with so much joy being told of a cancer diagnosis for the very first time in my life but here I was thanking the universe that it was only a BCC and not a melanoma. I went to visit the doctor that night to talk about the next steps for me. She advised that they would have to make a 4 x 4 cm incision on the side of my head to get it completely out. At this point in time I was also upset that they would have to cut out some of my hair off (which I am so emotionally attached to) on such a visible part of my scalp. I know its superficial, and it was only a skin cancer, but the whole experience really sucked and was stressful.

So today I go back to the doctor 10 days after my surgery and hope that my pathology comes back clear. The worst case for me now at this point in time would be undergoing more surgery because the doctor didn’t remove enough skin around the skin cancer to be sure it wouldn’t come back. I also have to get skin checks every three to six months now for a couple of years.

So I end this story on the note that skin cancer does not discriminate by age or skin colour. Just because skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer, and in most cases, the least dangerous form of cancer, it should be taken seriously. If you are a person who has the attitude that a skin cancer can simply be cut or frozen off before anything serious would happen then yes, you are probably right. But having surgery under local anaesthetic completely sucks. And you would want to hope that whatever they are cutting out is not anywhere on your face, or somewhere that really hurts, which is pretty much anywhere on your body! What I am trying to say is, sometimes it’s not always as easy as you think, plus your body needs time to recover and heal. In my case, I had to get something cut out of my head and hair needed to be cut off. Now I have a large visible scar on my head, and the doctor said this may or may not affect hair growth in that area. This would be a similar case for patients who need to get skin cancers cut off near their ears, nose, eyes and mouth. Sometimes the patches of skin that they cut out are so large that it causes significant changes to appearance. So the message is, don’t consider skin cancer treatment options too lightly. The best thing you can do, is be conscious of your sun exposure and prevent the need to be in this situation in the first place, and most importantly, acknowledge the importance of regular skin checks no matter what age or skin colour you are. That’s my message to you all and why I have shared my story with you.

One more thing… I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge how grateful I am for the skin surveillance specialists and technology that is currently available to us. Because of this, most skin cancers can be detected and treated early and before they become life-threatening.

Next time you see me on the beach I’ll definitely be covered head to toe, wearing some over sized sunglasses and a fabulous looking wide brimmed hat while sitting in the shade!

Until next time,

To the woman who…

To the woman who…

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