Ah, to be young and naïve. When I was in my early 20s, I didn’t always think about the consequences of my actions, like many people. And that applied to taking care of my skin. I was far more concerned with having fun and being carefree, than being careful and safe. Luckily, I spotted an issue before it became a serious problem, and it taught me a valuable lesson. February marks National Self-Check Month, a great reminder that being aware of any health concerns and being on top of monitoring them can be extremely important in the long run.
In 2013, I moved to Tucson, Arizona; a bright, sunny, hot city where you could lay by the pool nearly all year. And I did. I worked an overnight schedule (1:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m.) which only made it easier for me to enjoy the pool during the day before I went to bed around 4:00 p.m. And like most apartment complexes in Arizona, we had a pool – two actually. I would read a book, lounge poolside, go for a little swim, listen to music, sometimes invite other overnight shift work friends over to hang out during the day. I used SPF 4 tanning lotion and likely didn’t even apply it as often as I could have. I was always tan and always having a great time.
Then, in 2014, I moved in San Diego, California. Yet another city full of sun and opportunities to lay out by the water. But by this time, it had caught up to me. I noticed a very weird, suspicious looking mole on my side, just below my armpit. At first, I didn’t pay too much attention to it. But then it got bigger, the color got more unusual and uneven, and it wasn’t symmetrical. I knew these were all warning signs. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, good guidelines to follow when examining moles are the ABCDEs of melanoma. According to their website, this is what that means:
- A is for Asymmetry.Most melanomas are asymmetrical. If you draw a line through the middle of the lesion, the two halves don’t match, so it looks different from a round to oval and symmetrical common mole.
- B is for Border.Melanoma borders tend to be uneven and may have scalloped or notched edges. Common moles tend to have smoother, more even borders.
- C is for Color. Multiple colors are a warning sign. While benign moles are usually a single shade of brown, a melanoma may have different shades of brown, tan or black. As it grows, the colors red, white or blue may also appear.
- D is for Diameter or Dark.While it’s ideal to detect a melanoma when it is small, it’s a warning sign if a lesion is the size of a pencil eraser (about 6 mm, or ¼ inch in diameter) or larger. Some experts say it is important to look for any lesion, no matter what size, that is darker than others. Rare, amelanotic melanomas are colorless.
- E is for Evolving.Any change in size, shape, color or elevation of a spot on your skin, or any new symptom in it – such as bleeding, itching or crusting – may be a warning sign of melanoma.
Finally, I made a dermatology appointment. I pointed out the mole and the doctor agreed it didn’t look quite right. She numbed my skin and sliced pretty deeply to get the large mole completely off. It was a fairly deep, large wound that I had to keep a large bandage on for quite a while. Already, I was realizing I probably should have gotten this taken care of earlier, before it grew this large. The doctor then sent it off to be tested. It came back abnormal, but not cancerous. I was relieved but I knew that this was my warning to not be so reckless from now on. It was also a valuable lesson about keeping an eye on my own skin, knowing what is not normal and what is newly developed, and being proactive about getting it checked professionally.
From then on, I was more diligent about keeping an eye on my skin and any new moles that might develop; especially ones that follow the ABCDEs of melanoma. I also started wearing high SPF sunscreen and reapplying religiously. I always wear hats now in the sun and often stay in the shade or under a poolside umbrella, instead of opting to get that tan glow. I was in Hawaii this summer and wore a waterproof sun protection t-shirt while paddleboarding to keep my shoulders safe, after I’d already exposed them to the sun a few days in a row and was worried about too much exposure. I never thought I’d be that person at the beach! But I learned, it just isn’t worth it, safety first.
If you want to do a self-check of your skin for any moles that might need professional attention, the American Cancer Society has tips on the how to do this successfully.
It’s also always a good idea to get a professional skin screening. You can sometimes find free screening sites online.
Here are some websites that list them:
I’m looking forward to enjoying the spring and summer sunshine – safely!