Being diagnosed with stage II melanoma was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, but after almost eight years of survival, seven of which have been spent educating the public about this easily preventable disease, I can honestly say that everything happens for a reason.
Growing up, I hated my fair skin and red hair. So, at 17, when I came back from vacation looking somewhat darker, I decided to maintain that color by visiting a tanning salon. I enjoyed it so much that I used tanning beds once a week for twenty minutes — even during the summer. I kept this up for two and a half years, because I wanted to be less pale.
My mom warned me of the dangers of using tanning beds, but I decided to go anyway. I would lie to my mom about why my face was red. I also ignored warnings from my friends.
Just three years after I started tanning, I was diagnosed with stage II melanoma at the age of 20. It was discovered when I showed an itchy, dark mole on my stomach to my doctor during a routine physical. A surgeon later removed the mole. I panicked when I received the diagnosis.
There's no doubt in my mind that my indoor tanning caused my skin cancer.
I started a month of non-stop doctor's appointments, which led up to a three-hour surgery on Feb. 13, 2004, during which a portion of the skin on my stomach and eight lymph nodes under both arms, were removed. Thankfully, tests showed the cancer hadn't spread, but I still had to recover from the surgery that left me with 70 stitches in my stomach and a 5-inch scar.
I blamed myself for my illness. There's no doubt in my mind that my indoor tanning caused my skin cancer. I wasn't a beach baby. I knew what I was doing to my body, but I always thought it wouldn't happen to me.
I've turned the experience into my life's mission — increasing awareness of skin cancer through a variety of means, including speaking to teenagers and young adults. I want people to understand how serious skin cancer is. I had drainage tubes in me. I couldn't lift anything over 20 pounds for six months. I'm fortunate my skin cancer was diagnosed before it was too late.