My name is Lana and when Amber approached me to share this story about my personal battle with cancer I knew it was something I had to do, if it prevents one of you from choosing vanity over health then that is more than worth it.
To the disgust of my former sixteen year old self, I have always been pale. I have the kind of ivory skin that pairs well with brown hair, blue eyes, and freckles. To its defense, my skin does have the ability to tan, although not very well. In high school, I would sit in my seat staring down at my legs in shorts; my legs were glowing with all of their white glory and I enviously compared them to the brown, tanned legs of the girls sitting near me. I hated the way my skin did not fit the status quo: tanning was in, what I had going on was definitely not. Therefore, from the time I was sixteen, I went to the tanning bed three to five times a week for a few months at a time to prepare for shorts and tank top season.
When I was just nineteen years old, I made a discovery. I was shampooing my hair and felt a small scab in the part of my hair. Unfortunately, I did not think much of it and picked it off (Yes, picked it…if you say you have never done that, I am calling you a dirty liar). A couple days later, I was brushing my hair and noticed the same scab in the same location and picked at it again, hoping that it would finally heal in a few days. To this day, I am not exactly sure why it never occurred to me to have this scab checked out by a doctor. I think it was a combination of embarrassment (who gets scabs in their head? Gross), absentmindedness caused by the stress of college classes, and a mindset that there could not be anything wrong with me (I am a robust, healthy nineteen-year-old and I am invincible for crying out loud). This cycle of picking and rediscovering it repeated for probably two months.
Summer rolled around, the stress of finals and resided, and my wonderful brain finally came to the realization that the scab was not healing. It was actually becoming larger and larger. I told my parents and an appointment with a dermatologist was set. I just knew that the doctor was going to tell me to switch shampoos because the one I was using was irritating my scalp, or that I had developed some kind of weird, almost-incurable, contagious eczema from living in a dorm. However, she took a cursory glance at my scalp and coldly informed me that I had skin cancer— basal cell carcinoma to be exact. I was completely floored. You know how in movies, when the main character gets shocked by information, the background becomes blurry, background noise blends together, and the camera zooms in on their open-mouthed gaze? Yep, that is a pretty accurate depiction of my reaction to my diagnosis. The doctor was droning on in an I-told-you-so voice about tanning beds and throwing out words like surgery and radiation while I was slowly reaching up to touch the scab on the back of my head. This cannot be happening to ME, I thought. Will I have a huge bald spot? Will I have to have chemotherapy? Will I have to wear a WIG???
I had two options to remove the cancer growing dangerously close to my brain: general surgery or Mohs surgery. In general surgery, the surgeon would cut out a huge hunk of meat from my head and we would just hope that all of the cancer was removed. I pretty much crossed that off the list before anyone ever explained to me what the other option was. Mohs surgery, on the other hand, is performed by a dermatological surgeon. The surgeon would cut small slices out of my head, examine the skin under a microscope, and redirect the cutting as needed. Therefore, the smallest amount of skin as possible would be removed. I decided on the Mohs surgery since it sounded like the best option to keep most of my head intact.
My first surgery did not go so well, to put it mildly. Most people sit in a special, rigged-up chair and have the Mohs surgeon make the first removal on a small area on their nose/forehead/neck (places most exposed to the sun). They will have had a shot or two of that miracle numbing medicine (seriously, it is aaaamazing) before the cut is made. Afterwards, they will sit there for approximately twenty minutes while they wait on the surgeon to analyze the skin under the microscope. The surgeon may have to go in a second time to make another cut, or in some of the “extreme” cases, a third time. Because I let the cancer spread for such a long time (or maybe mine was more aggressive), the surgeon made five large cuts to remove the skin cancer from my scalp. Each time, I sat in the special-rigged up chair and had to keep my hand on a silver, metal-thingy that was supposed to keep me from bleeding, but failed. Because the skin removals were over such a large area each time, it took the surgeon at least forty-five minutes to analyze my cuts. During this time, the blood from the growing hole in my head was dripping down the back of my neck and the numbing shots were becoming less and less effective. Because the surgery took so long and my numbing shots had all but worn completely off around the time of the fourth cut, more numbing shots were injected into my scalp. Because these numbing shots cause swelling, by the time the surgeon was finished, my scalp was too swollen to close the wound with sutures. I left the clinic with a gaping hole in my head.
I was awake and conscious for a five hour surgery that left me with this result. During the next six weeks, my life revolved around the healing process and The Wound. The Wound had to heal from the bottom up. The Wound had to be kept moist at all times (this meant that a gob of Vaseline was placed on it twice a day underneath a bandage). No matter how often my hair was washed, the Vaseline inevitably worked its oiliness through every strand of hair. This made me look like I had not taken a shower in weeks. Speaking of showering…The Wound had to be properly washed and cleaned each night. Since it was in the back of my head, I could not do it myself. I had to sit naked in a bathtub every night while my momma, bless her heart, carefully and tearfully shampooed my hair for me. If you want to break the spirit of a nineteen year-old, take away her ability to give herself a shower, shampoo her hair, brush her hair, and dry her hair.
It was during one of these nightly shampoo sessions a few weeks later that Momma noticed a red line streaking from the bottom of The Wound towards my neck. She told me, her voice shaking, that she thought we needed to make another appointment with the Mohs surgeon. I exploded. It was ALL her fault, she should NOT have found it, I just got through ONE surgery I shouldn’t have to go through ANOTHER one, why did she have to FIND it?! However, it is hard to be an effective angry person while you are naked and shampoo that you cannot rinse out yourself is piled in your hair. Anger quickly subsided to frustration and sadness. Both Momma and I cried the entire time she rinsed out my hair that night.
The red line turned out to be skin cancer, again. The second Mohs surgery was almost identical to the first. However, it was “only” four times of cutting and skin removal this time. Except during this surgery, I was determined to speed up the healing process (I desperately needed a quicker recovery time and less shampooed-by-someone-else nights). As stubborn and independently-spirited as ever, I opted to not receive as many numbing shots—ensuring The Wound could be closed at the end of surgery. I left the doctor’s office the proud owner of a sore jaw (gritting your teeth to keep from screaming from pain actually works) and eleven staples.
Fast forward to almost present-day. In October of 2013, a kind Mohs surgeon located in Columbia, South Carolina (he shall remain nameless) was performing a check-up on my scalp for any signs of basal cell carcinoma. We shall call him Dr. A for Amazing. At this time in my life, I have a large bald spot caused by the scar from the previous two surgeries in my scalp. Because the previous Mohs surgeon was forced to use staples to close the large wound, the scar has since spread out and flattened over time (staples do not do well at closing skin together). No matter how I fix my hair, the bald spot is visible (I told you the bald spot was LARGE). Thankfully, Dr. A found no signs of skin cancer during the check-up. However, he was so touched by my story and the size of the scar, he offered to do a FREE scar excision surgery to make the area smaller. I jumped on the opportunity—he removed the majority of the scar tissue (shown in the picture below), and closed the remaining skin on each side with sutures.
Now, three surgeries later, I am finally skin cancer free AND scar free. I would give anything to be able to go back in time and tell my sixteen year old self that her skin is beautiful the way it is. But, if she absolutely must be tan, to use self-tanning products. I would tell her that the tanning bed will just damage her health drastically. Although this journey has made me such the strong, resilient person I am today, my hope is that I can prevent it from happening to anyone else. I do not tell my story to scare anyone, but to inform you. Do not think you are invincible. If you go to the tanning bed, you will develop skin cancer at some point in your life. If you are “lucky” like me, it will just be basal cell carcinoma. If you are unlucky, it will be melanoma, which is life-threatening. That mole you have had for years but is changing shape since you’ve been going to the tanning bed? Get it checked out. That freckle that is a strange color that you never noticed before, but come to think of it, it developed right after you started going back to the tanning bed? Get it checked out. Your health is in your own hands and I just hope that you will be smarter about protecting it than I was when I was sixteen. I am nowhere near as "tan" as I once was but I am healthy, happy, and feel beautiful in my skin.
I am so blessed to know someone as strong and intelligent as Lana, and so selfless in wanting to help others. If you absolutely MUST be tan I highly suggest self tanning products, my personal favorite is million dollar tan, it goes on white and gradually (over a few hours) becomes a natural and beautiful looking tan. Tips on using this to its fullest potential: exfoliate really well in the shower with a body scrub (you can use a homemade one with brown sugar, lemon juice, and coconut oil!), dry completely, and apply the lotion evenly and rub in well. I recommend doing this after your morning shower because if you sleep after applying and sweat in your sleep you could wake up looking a bit patchy. I cannot recommend this product enough, especially from someone who used to frequent tanning beds herself, the bottle seems small but it goes a long way. Also 20 dollars is a lot cheaper than tanning memberships and the "fancy" lotions. Also you are more likely to avoid medical bills this way.