I was a real sun-worshipper growing up, so I spent a lot of time at the beach. Galveston Island is only an hour away from my hometown of Houston. And I was in a surfing club as a teenager that went all up and down the Texas coast. Back then, sunscreen wasn’t really a thing. So, I got a lot of bad sunburns.
That didn’t become an issue until my early 40s. I developed a little itchy spot on the crown of my head. The dermatologist who biopsied it in 1997 said it was squamous cell carcinoma, a fairly common type of skin cancer. But it wasn’t very big and she was able to shave it off pretty easily, so I didn’t worry about it.
Since then, I’ve been diagnosed with melanoma twice: once in 2012 and again in 2019. I am cancer-free now, thanks to surgery and radiation therapy back then and ongoing immunotherapy today. But melanoma is a much more serious type of cancer than squamous cell carcinoma. So, I am much more serious about protecting my skin.
I skipped sunscreen and hats despite my history of sun damage
I knew I’d accumulated some sun damage as a teen and young adult, but for many years, I still didn’t bother to wear sunscreen or hats. A coworker scolded me routinely about it, but I’d still go out and play golf with no protection.
As a result, my scalp got burned fairly frequently. But the way I saw it, I already had a dermatologist, so she could take care of anything that popped up. I’d been seeing her every three months for a decade by then. And I never missed an appointment.
My melanoma symptoms
Then, one day in February 2012, I saw a little round area right on the top of my head. It was kind of pink-ish, and looked like a keloid scar. I was having another little spot of squamous cell carcinoma removed at the time, so the dermatologist asked her husband, a Mohs surgeon, to come take a look. He did and said he’d remove it when the stiches came out.
By the time I returned to his office, the spot had gotten a little ugly looking. The edges were ragged, and it was about the size of a dime. Back then, I still had hair, so when I flipped it back for the surgeon to take a look, he said, “Oh, my goodness. We need to get that off right now.” He took a sample of the growth and sent it off to the lab for analysis.
The next day, my doctor called. The biopsy showed it was melanoma.
My shocking melanoma diagnosis
Even though I’d been getting a couple of spots burnt off every so often for years, I was still shocked by my first melanoma diagnosis. I said, “How can this be? We’ve practically been dating for the last 10 years.”
She said my bump was actually a mixture of cells. Some were regular melanoma, and others were desmoplastic melanoma. It was more aggressive and faster-growing than other skin cancers I’d had, so it needed to come off immediately. She was arranging the surgery right then.
My melanoma treatment
I had surgery to remove the melanoma on May 16, 2012. But afterward, my doctors couldn’t decide whether or not I needed additional treatment. I went to MD Anderson for a second opinion. My doctors there recommended five doses of radiation therapy.
I ended up having that treatment at MD Anderson, under world-renowned radiation oncologist Dr. Gunar Zagars (now deceased). That kept me cancer-free until my relapse last year. Now, I’m on an immunotherapy drug called nivolumab, and show no evidence of disease. But I know I’m one of the lucky ones. So, I try to be really careful.
I live in Clear Lake today, which is just 35 miles from the coast. So, I’m still at the beach quite a bit. But now, I know that sun damage is cumulative. So, I’m not as cavalier about protecting my skin. I put on a hat and wear sunscreen religiously. And I tell everyone I know to do the same.