When I was a senior in high school, I worked at a tanning salon.
I’m guessing you know where this is going.
For a 17 year old in 2005, it was kind of a dream job. I tanned for free in premium beds – with free high-end tanning lotions – as often as I wanted. My best friend AND my boyfriend (now husband) worked with me. I frequently lead the staff in sales (when my boyfriend wasn’t using his charm on old, leather-skinned women), and listened non-stop to Top 40 radio. Think this, on repeat, to feel the scene. Work was actually fun. What could be better?
Looking back, I probably tanned 3-5 times per week on average for a year. Maybe 18 months. Then I went to college, and when the sessions weren’t free anymore, I tanned less and less frequently until I stopped entirely in my early 20s.
Fast forward a decade, and I’m sitting in a dermatologist’s office with a nurse practitioner taking a No. 10 blade to my lower back.
I have not been anywhere near a tanning bed in well over five years. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I fake baked. I wear sunscreen when I’m going to be outside for long periods of time. Over the last few months, though, I have found myself more and more concerned with my skin. Not that I thought anything was necessarily wrong, but at 29 years old with even a short history of tanning, I knew I should probably be watchful. While having a moment of true adulthood this summer, I decided to call and make an appointment with a dermatologist for a simple skin check. I was going to be a responsible 29 year old, damnit. I was going to be ahead of any potential problem I may have caused myself.
It took over two months to get a “new patient” appointment at the local doctor.
By the first week of October, I had nearly forgotten the appointment. I didn’t have a sitter, since I forgot, so I had to take my oldest daughter with me. I was slightly hungover from a wedding the night before. I quite obviously brought down the average age in the waiting room by a good 40 years. I had a pit in my stomach before I even saw a medical professional. I was texting my best friend for emotional support. For some reason, I just knew something was going to be terribly wrong.
And, wouldn’t you know it, something was off.
The nurse practitioner was concerned about only one particular mole, on my lower back, so she performed a biopsy. I sat half naked in a gown, and had to answer my daughter’s non-stop string of questions while doctors quite literally shaved off my skin with a scalpel and then cauterized it. When the nurse was telling me how to care for my new wound, I had to lie down with a cold rag so I wouldn’t pass out… while still being peppered with questions from a preschooler, and trying to appear unfazed.
Then I had to wait for a week to find out if all of that was for nothing, or if this seemingly normal spot on my skin was going to kill me.
The first few days of the waiting were hard, and I was obviously depressed. So much so, that my husband came home one day at dinner time and told me to leave the house. I didn’t even fight him, like I usually would – I simply loaded myself in the car and drove to get a pedicure on the spot. I never even once looked up from my phone to have small talk with the poor woman who scrubbed off my callouses. I just wanted to sit and zone out from the world.
My husband never asked where I went. He said it didn’t matter, God bless him.
By day seven, I would have forgotten all about my appointment if I didn’t have a nagging soreness where the biopsy had scabbed over (which I have later found out, is a no-no. But I didn’t read the paper they gave me, because I was too busy fainting in front of my three year old). When the dermatologist’s office called right in the middle of my daughter’s dance class, during parent observation week, my heart nearly stopped.
I have a moderate-severe atypical mole. It’s pre-cancerous, and changing. And while it’s not going to kill me right now, I need surgery to have it removed entirely.
Thankfully, that’s good news – I don’t have melanoma. I just have a spot that has a high likelihood of becoming cancerous. It was caught early enough, thanks to my impromptu decision to schedule an appointment, to simply be removed. But even with that positivity, this is all still difficult for me to process.
I have to have surgery. Real surgery. NEXT WEEK. For something cancer related. I’m 29.
This was not in the plan.
I know I’m being dramatic. I don’t have cancer, after all. It could be a million times worse than an appointment with a general surgeon, some stitches, and another back scar to add to my collection. But I cannot shake this melancholy.
It has been almost two weeks since my initial appointment, and I have until this point told two people. My husband, and my best friend. I wrestled with telling my parents – after all, this is kind of a big deal in my pretty little world – but I decided not to since it’s nothing to really worry about at this point. It’s harvest season after all, and my dad is a farmer. There’s enough stress on the farm right now.
My husband secretly told them anyway.
I’m not sharing all of this for sympathy. I realize this may be a mild shock to those close to me, but I promise I’m just fine. I’m sharing my current situation because I know many others who may be in the same boat as I am. After all, in the early 2000s we all knew the risks of tanning – but none of us seemed to care. In 2017, my past is just beginning to haunt me.
Go. Get checked out. It could save your life.
And for the love of God, listen to Baz Luhrmann’s VH1 video circa 1999. Always, always wear sunscreen.
This is 29. The year I put myself, my health and my mental wellness first. Some things simply can’t wait.