It’s rare that most of us can pass through our day without being sent a viral video, and as cliché as it may sound, finding the video Dear 16-year-old Me is one that I will forever be thankful for watching, and not deleting. Dear 16-year-old Me (link at end of the post) was made by the David Cornfield Melanoma fund, and real Canadians and Americans whose lives have been touched by melanoma.
Saturday’s Not Just Skin Deep – Portraits for Melanoma Awareness event was a phenomenal success thanks to the passion of colleague and event organizer Kelly Gemmell, and the participation of 20+ photographers in Southwestern Ontario and British Columbia. The goal was to raise $10,000 in one day for the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund and yes, the goal was achieved! NJSD photographers came together and provided portraits for over 100 families, with 100% of the proceeds supporting the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund. Do you know how happy I was with the amazing weather during the 3 hour window for these portraits? Happy. Do you know how happy I was with my 5 NJSD session supporters? Very Happy.
I realize this post is going to be longer than most, but I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to read why I was a part of NJSD as well as the words behind Robin’s involvement. It not only supports our participation, but it supports everyone who has been touched by melanoma.
In the summer of 2002 I had a small mole removed on my forearm. I noticed it looking different and decided to have it and a few other moles checked out by my doctor. At first he didn’t think there was reason for concern for that particular mole, but because I was already having a few other moles removed that he was uncomfortable with, he decided to add the forearm mole on the list just to be sure. I remember the surgeon at the hospital out-patient day clinic asking me “why did you want the one on your arm taken off?” which I thought was a little odd because they usually don’t talk to you while you’re re-assembling your clothes ;) . I told him it was because even though the colour hadn’t changed, there seemed to be the tiniest of “bubbling” on the edges. Trust me, it was teeny tiny, but it was different.
Less than a week later, my family was at the cottage. I don’t know about you, but our cottage phone doesn’t ring all that often. But this time it did, and it was my doctor on the other end. He told me the mole on my forearm was classified as malignant melanoma in situ. I knew what malignant meant because my mom had breast cancer when I was in high school. And I knew what melanoma meant because a neighbour of ours growing up passed away from melanoma when she was only in her 30s. But, I didn’t know what “in situ” meant. I quickly became fond of that part of the report because “in situ” meant that the cancer was in the very early stages and only affected the top layer of the skin, not deeper in the body. I only needed a wide excision of the area (by the crafty hands of a plastic surgeon) which thankfully came back clear. And because the 1st report came back malignant, I was required to see an oncologist for a thorough check (and additional mole removal). Thankfully, all those reports were clean.
Since that time, I’ve been the bearer of a 2″ scar (and divot) on my arm. The freckles may have re-surfaced, but the divot is still there and serves as a daily reminder to be extremely vigilant in checking my body. I wear sunscreen. I educate my children on wearing sunscreen (and hats!) especially because of their fair skin and freckles. I can’t be their 24/7 mommy-guard, but I can teach them to be sun-smart because their health depends on it.
Robin (Robyn – long story – haha) was my first visitor for the Not Just Skin Deep sessions. Robin is a massive advocate for sun-safety and has graciously offered to tell her story. I applaud her bravery in sharing personal images (be forewarned they are graphic) and her passion for doing all she can to educate others on the dangerous side of the sun. Thank you Robin for being a huge inspiration!
This is Robin’s Story.
“Everyone likes to look tanned, right? I know I sure did. As a teen in the 80’s I spent my fair share of time in the tanning booths, or baby-oiled up outside during peak sun hours. No one really advocated safe sun practices back then, and even if they had, I’m pretty sure my “I’m young and indestructible” attitude would have ignored the warnings anyway. I got a few good burns under my belt before I was 20 and little did I know how much those burns increased my chances for skin cancer.
My first trip to the dermatologist was purely based on vanity. I had two spots on my left shin that I didn’t like the looks of; they were kind of red and ugly, a little like cigarette burns (I know, a terrible image, but it gets the point across). When I got there and pointed them out, he said they were just scar tissue from bug bites from many years ago. He then, however, looked at more of my body and found a spot on my back that immediately alarmed him. The same spot I had thought was a lingering pimple and I had asked my best friend to pick at with a dental tool to see if it would go away (she’s a GOOD friend!). Turns out, after a biopsy, it was melanoma. So out it came, and I got my first scar.
I switched doctors shortly thereafter and my new one was thorough beyond all expectations. She went over every inch of my body, combed through all the hair on my head, and looked in between my toes; where she found melanoma number two. This alarmed me more than the first as this was a spot that had never been exposed to the sun, and I couldn’t blame this on my own bad behavior and choices. My doctor removed 38 more spots of squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma over the next two years. My scar count was increasing dramatically.
Then my chemo treatments began. They couldn’t keep cutting skin away as certain areas would just grow back (the cancer parts). So, I used a topical chemo that would seek out the cancerous parts of my skin and destroy it, while still leaving the healthy parts intact. I did four 6-week rounds of this: once on my face from my eyes down, once on my lower chest, once on my upper chest, and lastly on my forehead. As you can see from the photos, it looks pretty gruesome and quite frankly, it didn’t feel any better. Like any chemo, it takes a toll on your whole body and your immune system and I was happy each time to be done with it. Hopefully I am done for good!
In a lot of ways, I feel I am lucky to have gotten this type of cancer and that I had such a visible treatment. Lucky in that I can see or sense when the cancer is there as I’ve become an expert at knowing my own skin (my doctor trusts my instincts now). Lucky because none of it has spread into my organs or the rest of my body. Lucky because people have asked me questions about my treatment (the ones on my face were kind of hard to miss!) and I believe I have influenced more than a few people about their visits to tanning beds; none of my personal friends would EVER set foot in one again. I think all who know me are more conscious of their use of sunscreen and are safer while in the sun. I’m lucky to have learned so much about my body over the past few years, and lucky to know how to treat it the right way moving forward.
Now I’m almost a wee bit proud of my scars as they have made me into the person I am today, albeit a much paler version.
Thanks for letting me share my story.”
Robin, you are a strong and beautiful woman and I (we!) can’t thank you enough for your candor and willingness to share. Like you said, if your journey can help one person, then it’s a journey well-taken. I enjoyed our short time together and wish you continued health. ps. you can come visit me anytime on sessions… and bring bug spray ;) Enjoy your photo sneak peek!
The following image collage is from Robin’s collection and shows the intensity of topical chemo treatments. The photos aren’t easy to look at, but they definitely drive home the serious impact of sun damage. Thank you Robin for sharing something so personal… I know it means a lot to you and I’m honoured to support your story and desire to educate.
“NO MORE CHEMO” image inspiration from a project by some new friends of mine: The Smile Epidemic.
Thanks Jim & Jen!
Stay tuned for additional sneak peeks from the other NJSD sessions. :)