By April Pulliam
Skin checks have always been important to me. As a preteen, I obsessed over examining my skin–looking in all the right places including my back, stomach, hairline, and even my feet. I left no stone unturned– no area unchecked. If I am completely truthful, my self-examinations exceeded the expectations of normal regularly planned monthly skin checks; most of the time, I scanned my skin daily.
I was faithful. I was routine.
I was stupid.
During those skin checks, I was sure of myself and knew exactly what I was looking for. There was one huge glaring problem: I was examining my skin regularly to make sure it was darker, and I was watching to make sure my tan lines were obvious. It was important to me that the only pale areas were under my clothing where no one would notice them anyway. I was quite literally checking to make sure I was damaging my skin. Was I burnt? Red enough? Enough contrast in the tan lines? This incredibly asinine habit went on from the time I was around twelve years old until I was 33 with two small children and countless visits to tanning salons under my belt.
Year after year, summer after summer, I made sure I spent as much time in the sun as possible and made up for any time lost to rainy days with visits to a tanning salon. As I became a busy working mother, I used tanning beds more frequently and jam-packed my beloved exposure to those harmful ultraviolet rays into 20-minute sessions sandwiched between the two fiberglass panels of a tanning bed. I faithfully followed those sessions with mirror checks to make sure I was tanning. Of course, I wasn’t. That, in and of itself, might be the most ridiculous aspect of my story. I am fair and freckled, have reddish blonde hair, and don’t tan easily, but Heaven knows I tried. Never, in all those years of tanning, was my skin a bronze color; it was always varying tones of red, and I kept a fresh-from-the-sun burnt look from February to October for about 15 years.
In 2007, my story changed–and so did the nature of my skin checks. I was diagnosed with melanoma at the age of 33. An irregularly shaped mole on my arm pointed out by my best friend led me to have a biopsy by my family doctor. With two children under the age of six, skin cancer invaded my life, but I had graciously opened the door. Overexposure to the sun and indoor tanning paved the way for sun-damaged skin and increased my chances for developing both squamous and basal cell carcinoma in addition to creating an increased risk of melanoma.
Following the excision of the melanoma on my upper left arm, I was introduced to regular skin checks–the kind that could save a life. I examine all the same places I used to check so thoroughly, but I am watching for new spots, changes in existing moles, and dry patches of skin that aren’t healing easily. These regular checks and visits to a dermatologist led to the discovery of three more problematic spots that proved to be basal cell carcinoma.
Thanks to my obsession with tanning beds, my determination to seek sun exposure, and my compulsive checks to make sure I had visible and distinct tan lines, I am now a regular user of a topical chemotherapy, Efudex. Monthly skin checks and visits to my dermatologist every six months keep me on my toes, and I am now aware of the precancerous spots that continue to appear on the surface of my skin despite the fact that I haven’t tanned since 2007.
Being fair and freckled with green eyes, I may have had all the right factors for skin cancer, but I created the perfect storm by abusing my skin with tanning beds and skimming right past suspicious spots and changing moles as I made the quest for tan skin my only goal. Regular skin checks and visits to a dermatologist are vital, and not enough of us realize that fact. The years I spent tanning are years I will never get back, and the damage I created cannot be reversed. I am still checking my skin, but I have changed the way I look at myself in the mirror, and the list of things I look for has changed dramatically. I have new priorities–skin checks that can save my life, not end it.