The Sun: Friend or Foe?
Recently, there have been several sun-loving articles lighting up my social media feed. The gist of the new research that these articles circle around is that society has been falsely concerned with receiving too much sun when we should have been focusing on making sure we are getting enough of its rays. Because the recklessness of some of these articles burns me up (OK – last sun pun) and because it already feels like summer here in North Carolina, I thought now would be a good time to share my story of being diagnosed with melanoma at age 28.
While I don’t blame running for my melanoma, it’s possible that the sport was related. In 2014, I was diagnosed with two stress fractures in my tibia. I had been coming back from a severely-sprained ankle while also trying to train for the Boston Marathon. Even after being cleared to run again, however, I was still having significant pain at the spot of one of the stress fractures.
I hired a coach to help get me back on track. At a coffee meeting, the coach suggested that my stress fractures weren’t the results of doing too-much-too-soon nor attempting to run through shin splints but rather because I hadn’t gotten enough sunlight/Vitamin D during the darker winter months.
Not long after the meeting with my new coach, I took a trip to the coast. I slipped on a skimpy string bikini and laid out below the sun god and asked her to heal my broken bone. The next day, I returned to Charlotte with a red, sunburnt chest. It wasn’t the first time that I had been burnt on my chest, but it was the last time.
It was my general practitioner that first spotted the cancer later that summer. During a general yearly physical, she pointed out a few moles on my chest that she believed needed to be examined by a dermatologist. It had been a couple of years since I had been to the skin doctor. No longer having an insurance plan that provided a co-pay for a specialist, I hadn’t been too excited about shelling out big bucks for a doctor visit that I wasn’t convinced was entirely necessary. But I figured I had wasted so much money on recent running injuries that what was another couple of hundred down the drain??
It was probably another month or so before I finally got in to see the very busy dermatologist. After giving me a thorough examination, she pointed at one mole on my chest and suggested that I have it removed for testing. “If it were me, I’d remove it. It’s not going to be melanoma, but it could be <insert Greek words> that some people think could turn into melanoma.”
The doctor would have let me leave that day without removing the funny mole, which is one of the scariest parts of this story. But I, again thinking of all the money down the drain trying to treat running injuries, thought Hey, what’s another couple of hundred?
And surprise, it came back a melanoma.
Technically, my melanoma was a Stage 1b with signs of partial regression. It was stage 1 because it was very thin (hadn’t spread far), but it was a “b” because the mitotic index (which measured the rate it was spreading) was high. My oncologist said that the melanoma hadn’t been there very long, maybe a few months or a year at most. The high mitotic index was not good, but because it was caught early, I had a positive prognosis. Some doctors believed that the partial regression was a bad sign, but my doctor stated that he had performed a study that proved it didn’t matter. It surprised me that the doctors weren’t 100% sure about the regression. It also surprised me that they weren’t 100% sure about me either. Technically, I was given about a 92% five-year survival rate. However, my oncologist believed in my case, it was probably higher. But not 100%.
At first, I took the cancer diagnosis fairly well. I was going to have a surgery to cut out more tissue and then I’d get sewn up and move on with life. However, about a year later at a follow-up appointment, my oncologist pointed at another mole on my chest and asked me why my dermatologist hadn’t removed it. Why ask me? So, I went back to my dermatologist and told her that the oncologist wanted it gone. She was slightly reluctant since she didn’t think it looked abnormal, but she agreed to take it off.
Surprise again. A pre-melanoma mole. This time it didn’t mean a trip to the oncologist, but it did mean that I had to go to a plastic surgeon to have another chunk of skin removed just in case.
My chest was starting to look like one of those road signs that warned about an upcoming intersection, but what was starting to bother me more were fears that there could be another melanoma that we missed. Or maybe we didn’t remove all of the other one? Or maybe it spread?
I had the plastic surgeon remove a mole of the back of my calf because I read an article about Olympic swimmer Summer Sanders and the melanoma that was removed from the back of her calf. (Mine was fine.) I also went back to the oncologist twice because I had an OBGYN tell me that she could feel lumps in my groin lymph nodes and then I later felt lumps in my neck.
I spent about a year holding my breath. There was always a weight on my shoulders and fears in the back of my head that I was going to die. It wasn’t completely rational, but I also couldn’t convince myself that it was completely irrational either.
For the most part, I’ve moved past my fears of dying from melanoma. I now go to the Levine Cancer Institute every 6 months, and all my recent appointments have been great. My scars are slowly healing even though my chest will never look the same. This fall will mark five years from when my melanoma was removed.
Do I think there are benefits from the sun? Absolutely. Do I think there are unsafe sunscreens? Again, absolutely. But I don’t think we should be sun stupid. You will never find me suntanning again in my life. I will avoid being under the sun when it is at its strongest (10:00am – 2:00pm). I don’t wear sunscreen every day, but if I’m going for a lunchtime run, then I will definitely slap on some ThinkSport, a mineral-based safer alternative. (There are other safe sunscreens but this is just what I use.) I will also wear a hat, some sunglasses, and a top that covers up at least my chest and shoulders.
Fortunately, most of you who read this post will never get melanoma. However, I will not say that melanoma is so rare that others shouldn’t consider it a risk. I have had family members and friends get melanoma. My sister (who had an irregular mole that was treated like melanoma) had a sorority sister in college die of melanoma. It’s not that rare. But what is definitely less rare are other skin cancers. These other cancers, though, still have to be removed, which means scarring our faces and bodies. Is that what we want to do?
In closing, I think of the sun like a nice glass of red wine. A little bit is great. And even good for you. But you go drink a whole bottle in a night and let me know how that works out for you.