Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Guilt trip

A blonder, tanner version of myself.
Last weekend, I went out to dinner with a good friend of mine who beat testicular cancer shortly before I had my run-in with melanoma. At dinner, I felt disgustingly selfish when we were exchanging cancer stories. How could my stage I melanoma compare to my friend losing his hair during intense rounds of chemotherapy? I feel the same way when I read about young women like Chelsea Price, a fellow blogger and stage III melanoma survivor. She has more scars than I can count and is participating in a clinical trial for a new melanoma drug. It's like I'm swimming in the kiddie pool while these guys are diving in the deep end. Not that I want to be in the deep end by any means, but I worry that people will look at me and think: yes, melanoma is just a skin cancer that you can cut out and be done with.

Not so much. In addition to the three-inch chunk of flesh I had removed (and the $3,000 it cost me after insurance), there's been an overwhelming feeling of guilt that's haunted me every day since my diagnosis. Recently, I mentioned that I was writing a short story for teenagers about why tanning beds are evil. As I wrote, I asked a few friends to take a look at my drafts. They all had wonderful, insightful feedback that was able to incorporate into my final draft, but one comment in particular stuck out to me. In my essay, I wrote that I had been "lucky" to catch my melanoma before it progressed past stage I. It's something numerous doctors have told me and that I've told myself over and over. But what if I hadn't been so lucky? What makes me so different than all these other 20-somethings who didn't catch their cancer early? These were some of the questions I was grappling with in the days and months following my diagnosis. It actually wasn't until this week, sitting down and writing this short essay and reaching out to my friends for feedback, that I realized the impact of these feelings. My friend Liz said to me:
"Something that wasn't in the piece was the depth to your emotions when you were first diagnosed. I remember that you literally fell of the face of the earth, you didn't go out as much, you weren't as social, and it was difficult to even have a conversation with you over text messages, even. I feel like you were really scared that you could die. I know those emotions may be a little heavy in the short piece that you wrote, but saying that you 'were lucky' could give some teenagers who think they are invincible the impression that it's super easy to be cured of skin cancer and to move on with your life."
Liz's comment immediately made me rethink my strategy. Yes, of course I was lucky that I caught my cancer early. That doesn't mean that melanoma doesn't SUCK. Having a doctor tell me that I had melanoma shook me to my core. I never thought that tanning in my teens could have killed me in my 20s. But it can, and it does. Melanoma has become the most frequently diagnosed cancer for young adults aged 25 to 29, second only to breast cancer for women aged 15 to 29. Tanning bed use can increase a person's risk for developing melanoma by 75%, and yet indoor tanning is still a $5 billion per year industry, up from $1 billion in 1992.

Just for the record, when I talk about my melanoma, I'm not looking for a pity party. A prevention party maybe (ha!) but definitely not a pity party. Since I started doing some research and sharing my experiences with anyone who will listen, I've discovered a wonderful network of people whose lives have also been impacted by skin cancer. I've also had my fair share of run-ins with people who listen to my story and still choose to tan. Giving up UV tanning and living the "pretty in pale" lifestyle is easier said than done. Trust me. I get it. But if my story resonates with just one person and they change their behavior because of me, then somehow it seems like all this guilt will have been worth it.


  1. Wonderful piece. After my brother was diagnosed and "easily treated" (with a similar 3 inch chunk) from his Stage 2 melanoma, he felt similar guilt. He was involved with Relay for Life, but would never visit the survivor's tent, thinking he wasn't truly a "survivor." But he also went through the similar fears...and continued to live with that uncertainty that everyone with melanoma has..."will it reoccur." It does in 30% of the cases! Unfortunately, he WAS one of those 30% and the melanoma came back as Stage 4. I don't say this to scare anyone...but to enlighten others that once you have melanoma, you have it...if no other place than in your psyche for the rest of your life. Simply "cut out" or're a survivor in every sense of the word.

    You're sharing great thoughts! Thank you SO much!

    Al (Black is the New Pink)

    PS...your "pale" self looks SO much better than your tan version.

  2. Katie, please keep holding that "prevention party"-- you can reach an audience that will never, ever listen to an old geezer like me. Love the name of your blog, it fits so well with you and your message!

  3. Katie, this is so true. I had one in situ and another chunk of Stage 1. I have the very same feelings. A dear friend of mine has Stage 4 with a baby not even one-year-old. I see her and I never talk about my little Stage 1. She is only 21! I want to scream at the top of my lungs to teens and everyone..."Tanning beds are early coffins!" I tried to tan my fair skin in my teens, when tanning was really a big deal. I sweated it out on the rooftop literally. What a young idiot I was. The monster found me when I was 45. I had not tanned in 10 years. I am now a "young" 50 year-old. And I think about when it will sneak up on me again. Keep doing what you're doing...if it only touches 1, it's 1 life you saved.
    Admirer ~ Melinda

  4. Wow, this really made me think. Every year, since 2008, around this time I usually start fake n baking so that I'm extremely tan by summer. But a few weeks ago I decided I just don't want to anymore because I started to notice I was getting more and more freckles on my skin and it freaked me out. How stange and not so strange I stumbled upon your blog just when I was rethinking my decision. Thank you for sharing your story. I will not be stepping in to another tanning bed this spring/summer. I'll stick with my pale skin! :)

  5. I loved your post. Ever since my sister was diagnosed with stage 2B melanoma at age 27 I have been terrified of getting it too. It's changed my life and I am constantly freaked out whenever a new freckle appears or an area around a mole itches. Yet so many people I've shared my story with continue to tan, and I almost feel offended they didn't take my advice, like we went through this for nothing. I would do anything to go back to my teens and erase all those sessions in the tanning bed.

  6. Thank you for sharing your story. Stage 2a

  7. Your story is very inspiring! I grew up constantly hearing stories about how my pale, Irish Nana couldn't go out in the sun anymore because of melanoma. I grew up pale, pale, pale. My dad kids that I could burn if I stand in front of the refridgerator with the door open too long. And yet, there was always pressure to be tan. Tan makes you look thin and healthy... until you realize that the tan could (and most likely would) give someone pale like me cancer. Yikes! My daughter was "blessed" with equally pale skin, and now I have the challenge to raise her outside of a tanning bed! I wish I could splash your blog up on every teen's facebook page! Keep spreading the word! And pale ROCKS!! :)

  8. It's as if you were in my head while you were writing this story. I too had Stage 1 melenoma and I feel silly when I tell people I had skin cancer. It was removed and I am free and clear. "All" I have is a scar on my arm as a reminder but that reminder does make me point out any "strange" looking moles on people in locker rooms, reminding them to get a mole check and makes me put my foot down when my daughter tells me "everyone is tanning". Use your cancer experience for good, reminding yourself and others all that you have to live for.

  9. I never went on a tannning bed, but a few weeks ago I noticed a mole had changed. I went to see a dermatologist. I knew by his reaction it was serious, and I walked out with 10 stitches. Waiting a week for the biopsy results was hell, but thankfully it was stage 1. I have felt very guilty for how much this has impacted me as I am so lucky I caught it early. It was a terrifying experience, but I felt like I made a mountain out of a molehill, so your blog did make me feel better that other people felt the same way.

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