As told to Nicole Audrey Spector
I grew up in a family where wearing sunscreen was not talked about and rarely used. Quite the opposite, actually: we spray ourselves with tanning oil and bake in the sun. The more sun, the better!
As a Hispanic woman with brown skin, I enjoyed watching my skin tone darken in the summer months.
No one in my family knew much about melanoma or that anyone can get it.
In 2020, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I noticed a mole on my ankle that was darkening. At that time, I was much more informed about the dangers of skin cancer. As a health writer, I covered a story about a young woman who had melanoma and eventually died from it after the cancer came back and spread.
I made an appointment with a dermatologist. We met over video chat because strict Covid protocols prevented an in-person checkup.
The dermatologist examined the mole as best he could during our virtual visit and said it appeared normal. He didn’t give me any other information, such as signs to watch out for or changes to watch out for, which, looking back, would have been helpful.
A year later, a totally different skin problem appeared. She had what ended up being a dermatofibroma, a small round bump, on her back. She itched and annoyed me. So, I went in person to a new dermatologist. She diagnosed dermatofibroma and said it was not cancer, but she still recommended that I have a full body skin exam. This involved looking carefully at each mole on my body.
I showed him the mole on my ankle that the previous dermatologist didn’t care about. He thought he looked suspicious and biopsied him right then and there.
A week later, she called me and told me that the mole revealed melanoma. The next step was to numb my skin and remove a half-dollar-sized amount of tissue to make sure the melanoma had not spread.
I was surprised by my diagnosis and my family too. I was young, healthy and educated. I wrongly assumed that when you have all those boxes checked, you are safe from developing disease or illness. There is also the idea that Hispanic/Latino people don’t get skin cancer, but they certainly do.
Although the melanoma was detected early in my case, the word “cancer” carries some weight. When you hear you have melanoma, it makes you reflect, think about what’s important, and inspires you to let others know that this can happen to them too.
I found additional comfort in meeting with the surgeon who would be performing the procedure. He specialized in burns and wounds. I also met the anesthesiologist who would be working with the surgeon. He helped calm my nerves about the surgery and he also told me that he had had basal cell carcinoma on his face and had it successfully removed.
“You’ll be fine,” he assured me. “We’re going to take care of that.”
One of the nurses preparing me for surgery shared that she too had survived skin cancer.
“People with darker skin often think that skin cancer only happens to people with lighter, lighter skin,” the nurse said.
I agreed with her. After all, I had thought that once too.
I am very lucky that the surgery removed all the cancer. The melanoma had not spread and did not need further treatment. I am cancer free to this day, but still have full body skin checks every three months.
My focus is primarily on raising awareness in the Hispanic/Latinx community. I started at home by educating my parents on the importance of sun protection (how to use sunscreen even on areas where you wouldn’t think to put it, like your ankles or the back of your neck). I also had my mom and dad get full body skin checks, something they had never thought of doing before.
I don’t know if my parents and extended family “get it.” But I won’t give up on them. I insist that they practice sun protection habits and get their annual skin checks.
I have also done advocacy work on social media to share the threat of skin cancer among people of all races, ethnicities, backgrounds, socioeconomics, and educations. I was touched when a melanoma survivor reached out to me to tell me how happy she was that I was sharing this message.
I want everyone to know that the sun does not discriminate. Go to your dermatologist and get checked out. A simple annual exam can save your life.
This resource was created with the support of Merck.
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