Like most teens, I dabbled in many a regrettable trend. While the late ’90s and early ’00s were a great time for music and television, they were a less kind time for fashion and beauty.
If I could go back in time, I would literally beg my younger self to avoid over-tweezing my then-bushy eyebrows. I would throw away all of my iridescent eye shadow and burn my trucker hats (yes, unfortunately, plural). I would stay away from bleach and keep my hair a little more natural and a little less Barbie.
But, above all else, the biggest piece of advice I would give to my younger self would be to always, always wear sunscreen and to never, ever visit a tanning bed.
As a teenager, two of my favorite pastimes were lounging at the local swim club and visiting the tanning salon. Both of these were social activities, places to see and be seen. My biggest concerns at that time were getting a perfectly bronzed glow for my prom dress and comparing tan lines with my friends.
The absolute last thing on my mind was skin cancer until I was 21. During a routine checkup with my family doctor, he noticed a spot on my outer ear that ranged in color from black to light pink. He said he didn’t like the looks of it and referred me to a dermatologist.
A few weeks later, I was at that dermatologist getting a small piece removed for biopsy. A few days later, I was back to get a sizable portion removed and reconstructive surgery on my ear because it was, in fact, skin cancer.
That was my wake-up call.
Overall, I was lucky. I spent the next several weeks with a large bandage covering my ear and feeling so grateful to my family doctor. Without him, I may not have ever discovered that spot, as I was unable to see it myself.
May is skin cancer awareness month, and skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States and worldwide. Twenty percent of Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. The good news is that when it’s detected early, the 5-year survival rate for melanoma is 99%.
There are many things you can do to reduce your risk of not only sun damage but also skin cancer. Since my scare nearly 15 years ago, I religiously perform self-skin exams to check for suspicious moles. I know my body, and I know when something changes. If you aren’t sure what classifies a mole as “suspicious,” you can use the ABCDE guide:
Asymmetry – One part of a mole doesn’t match the other.
Border – The edges are irregular.
Color – The color is not the same all over and may include shades of dark brown or black, sometimes with patches of pink, red, white. (This is my biggest tell-tale – I am very fair and whenever I notice a mole is dark, I always have it checked. Some are fine, but many have turned out to be precancerous.)
Diameter – The spot is larger than ¼ inch across, or about the size of a pencil eraser.
Evolving – The mole is changing in size, shape, color, or texture. (I cannot say it enough: know your body!)
Of course, I still go outside, but when I do, I am so much smarter than I used to be. Sunburns are avoided at all costs and no longer worn like a badge of honor. I always wear sunscreen, even if it is a cloudy day. During the summer, you can count on me to have huge bug-like sunglasses and a hat. I lather my kids in 50 SPF, much to their chagrin. On the rare occasion I do want a little glow, I use a self-tanning foam.
To my naïve, younger self: please wear your sunscreen. It may not feel like the cool choice, but you know what’s even cooler than being tan? Being smart and being safe. Those two things never go out of style.