Despite being slightly more prone to skin cancer, I didn't see a derm until I was 23. Here's what I learned from my first appointment-turned-melanoma scare
Major confession here: Despite having all three risk factors for melanoma—moles, light hair and eyes, and a family history—I had yet to visit a dermatologist until last month. Embarrassing and shameful, I know.
After being prompted to make an appointment by some mysterious itchy bumps on my arm (don’t worry, this was actually just bug bites), I finally bit the bullet. So there I was: in a midtown Manhattan dermatologist’s office for my first ever skin check.
Being prodded all over by my male doctor during the full-body exam was slightly awkward, sure, but I was largely distracted by the arsenal of information being thrown my way as he closely checked my hundreds of freckles and moles, examining areas I didn’t even have on my radar—like between my toes, fingers, and on the back of my scalp.
As I lay there, I learned that (besides coming in for an annual check-up every year) I should also be on the lookout anything suspicious, using the ABCDE melanoma guidelines, he explained. A for asymmetry (both halves of the mole should match); B for border (the edges shouldn’t be ragged, notched, or blurred); C for color (moles should be the same all over); D for diameter (the area should be no larger than 6 millimeters, the size of a pencil eraser); E for evolving (any sort of change in size, shape, color, elevation).
Soon, he finished up the exam and I began a sigh of relief (I could put my clothes back on!). But then he began to take third and fourth looks at a mole on the back of my shoulder, firing off questions: How long has this been here? Has it always looked darker on one side? Unlike the prominent moles on my arms that are impossible to miss, this one was in such a position that I barely knew it existed. I certainly hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.
“It’s probably nothing, but the coloring looks suspicious. It’s unlike the rest of your moles. I think we should do a biopsy to be safe,” he told me. I trusted his opinion and agreed to the ‘quick and painless’ procedure. A few moments later I had a scalpel to my shoulder (thankfully, I was injected with a numbing solution first) and was told to wait a week or so for the results.
After about a week and a half of avoiding the pool, awkwardly trying to slather Vaseline on the (admittedly kind of gross looking) hole where my mole used to be, and trying not to freak myself out about the 'what if's', I finally received the results. The biopsy came back benign. But it was the reality check I most definitely needed.
After all, one person dies from melanoma each hour. Some other stats from our sister site, Fitness: The rate of melanoma has increased by 800 percent among women ages 18 to 39 over the past 40 years, largely due to unprotected exposure to UV light and tanning booths. In fact, just one blistering sunburn doubles your lifetime risk of melanoma, and only one tanning bed session increases your risk by 75 percent. When detected early, melanomas are usually curable. If not, the risk of metastasis (the disease spreading) and death is high. (Check this infographic to see your skin cancer risk, ranked state by state.)
How My Behavior Has Changed
Since the slight scare, I’ve become way more concerned about making sure I’m as protected as possible, slathering on high SPF and paying special attention to the areas I often forget, like my scalp and lips. Even when I’m feeling lazy, I bug whoever I’m with to apply sunscreen to areas I can’t reach, like the backs of my shoulders.
And when heading to the office? My blissful ignorance has been replaced with a real understanding of the day-to-day risk. After all, summer definitely isn’t the only time we should be worried about skin cancer. While most people think that when the weather cools down, so too does your risk of sunburn or UV damage, that's not the case, says celebrity dermatologist Ava Shamban, M.D. “Just because the days are shorter and cooler doesn't mean that the sun isn't shining,” she points out. (Stay protected with these Smart SPF Products That Aren’t Sunscreen.)
So, as we switch over to hot coffee, I have seriously changed up my skincare regime:
- I haven't gone a day without my trusty SPF 30 tinted moisturizer. I’m a Bare Minerals ($29; bareescentuals.com) girl all the way.
- Another key area I keep in mind when applying product? My chest. Shamban recommends mineral sunscreen brushes from colorescience ($64; colorescience.com).
- Adding a double-duty hand cream to my arsenal this winter will be key. Hand MD ($30; hand-md.com) provides serious hydration for outdoor runs while also protecting hands from UV rays with SPF 30. (For more doc-approved picks, see these Skincare Products Dermatologists Love.)
- I’ve also started amping up my moisturizer with vitamin C—which studies show can protect against damage from UV light exposure—in the form of Cover FX C + Lemongrass Custom Infusion Drops ($48; sephora.com). (You can add the miracle drops to any product you're already using.)
I’ll admit it, I’ve become a bit of a skin snob, always looking for higher quality ingredients to protect myself. But unlike that new pair of boots, at least I can justify this as an investment in my health. And if once a year, with an annual trip to the derm—in the time it takes to go to a Barry’s Bootcamp class—I can potentially save my life, why wouldn’t I make time for it?