My name is Craig. I was 27 years old when I was diagnosed with Stage 1a melanoma. I am the stereotype for skin cancer: very blonde hair, pale skin, blue eyes, freckles, and a history of sunburn that, nowadays, makes me cringe.
I have always been very active outdoors. I played sports, specifically soccer, all throughout grade school, high school and college. This meant camps and tournaments where we would be outside in the sun all day, without shade, several days a week. I also worked as a landscaper during my summer breaks in college. I NEVER wore sunscreen when I played sports, and I NEVER wore sunscreen when I was working outside. I would let my arms, face, neck, and legs get burned until it would eventually tan. I just thought it was unavoidable. I wasn't going to quit working outside or playing sports!
I saw dermatologists my whole life and had a few moles removed in the past. They never came back atypical or anything worse. I went for my yearly physical in 2013, and my PCP asked me when was the last time I had seen a dermatologist. When I told him it had been 3 years, he literally walked me into the dermatology suite at Northwestern's primary care facility and watched me make an appointment. It had been on my mind to do so, but I kept putting it off. His insistance saved my life. There is no other way to put it.
My dermatologist had/has her work cut out for her. My body is a solar system of mole-constellations (I have a lot of moles). She methodically went over my entire body; butt crack, arm pits, in between toes, scalp...everywhere. She found a very small, but very black and, under the dermascope, turned out to be very irregular mole on my upper back just to the right of my vertebrae. She said it for sure needed to come off, but didn't say anything else. She took two more off as well. I didn't think anything of it. I'd had the same thing done 5 or 6 times in the past and it had never been a problem.
A few days later, I was on my lunch break at work when my phone rang. I answered it, and my dermatologist told me that the mole she removed on my back was a melanoma. As you can probably imagine, my heart felt like it was going to explode out of my chest and it felt like I had a brick in my stomach. I had never been so scared in my life.
She stayed on the phone with me for probably 15 minutes, answering and reanswering all of my questions. I was incredibly lucky: the margins from the initial biopsy were negative, it was 0.33mm in depth, no ulceration. Even though she reassured me this was very promising, I still couldn't help but feel that my life was in genuine danger. I was terrified. I was referred to a surgical oncologist, and he told me that a sentinel node biopsy was unnecessary and that a wide local excision would be curative. I now have a 5 inch scar running vertically on my upper back from a little mole that was probably half the diameter of a pencil eraser.
Ever since, I have completely changed my habits with in the sun. I wear rashguards with UPF in them when I go swimming and wear sunscreen everywhere not covered by the rashguard. I wear goofy looking wide-brimmed hats when I fish, golf, walk around, etc. I don't care. The tan, and going shirtless without sunscreen is not worth your life. Everyday the thought of another melanoma looms in the back of my mind. I have a very healthy respect for how dangerous melanoma is. My regular 3 month appointments (trying to keep a sense of humor about all of this, I call these appointments "the harvest", as she tends to take a new mole each visit) with my dermatologist, along with taking measures to avoid sun exposure, are what I have to do to keep this from coming back and killing me.
Anyone can get melanoma. Bob Marley died of melanoma, and he was not a pasty, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white guy like myself. I happily tell my story to anyone willing/unwilling to listen. If my health scare can get someone into a dermatologist's office for a full body scan, then it is worth it.