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May 7, 2012

Saving My Skin

Melanoma is on the rise among young women across America. Faced with potentially fatal cancer, Abby Gardner uses her diagnosis as a wake-up call for life.


Photo Credit: Max Oppenheim/Workbook Stock/Getty Images

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I'm pretty sure vanity saved my life.

It all started with a raised reddish spot on my chest that peeked out each time I wore a V-neck. After trying every bump-eradicating skincare product I could think of, I realized it wasn't going away. So, seeing as my ridiculously fair-skinned self was also long overdue for a mole check, I made an appointment with my dermatologist. Turns out I will be forever grateful for that silly spot. While it was benign, my doctor found a small mole on my right thigh that was much darker than the others. It was edged up next to a freckle I'd had since I was a kid.

A week after my appointment and scrape biopsy, I got a call you know never comes with good news: The doctor himself was on the other end. My chest was fine; the spot on my thigh was the dreaded M word: melanoma. Cue the waterworks. At my desk. In the middle of the office. The doctor was talking and all that was going through my head were memories of my childhood friend Tricia who had lost a battle with melanoma six years ago at the age of 29. I thought about how I haven't left the house without sunscreen on for years and years, but tormented myself over my reckless (and painful) attempts to get tan as a teenager. Maybe this was my own fault! But I quickly pulled myself together, whipped out my notepad, and asked the good doctor to start from the top.

I learned that I was lucky—my cancer had been caught early. I also learned that I was in the company of my peers—so many young women across the country are increasingly getting this same news, which many researchers are linking to indoor tanning. A recent Mayo Clinic study showed that first-time diagnosis of melanoma increased eightfold in women 18 to 39 from 1979 to 2009. Thankfully, early detection is also up, so mortality rates are on the decline.

Up to this point in my life (I'm 36), the worst health challenge that I'd faced was a broken foot. Now I was going to need surgery to excise the melanoma and surrounding tissue—plus a lymph node biopsy (in my lower abdomen and groin area) to make sure that no cancerous cells had spread. It was a lot to take in.

But in the hands of the skilled doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of the country's best cancer hospitals, my two-hour operation was a success—and I was sent home that same day, armed with pain pills; a heck of a limp; and a red, Frankenstein-looking 5-inch gash on my leg. Seven anxious days later, I got good news that my lymph nodes were cancer-free, too.

Although it was the best outcome possible, I wasn't in the clear: Now that I have a history of melanoma, I'm at a higher risk. I've had three precautionary biopsies since my surgery and am committed to quarterly dermatologist appointments and check-ins with my surgeon. My doctors now look for visible signs in places I never expected, like inside my mouth and on my eyes. I even have a special dermatologist (with a set of stirrups in her office) to screen my vaginal and anal areas—I get to see her every six months. This is how it is now. But rather than feel inconvenienced by all the appointments and copays, I feel so grateful.

The emotional and psychological benefits—yes, benefits—of having skin cancer is something I never anticipated. It sounds corny, but it's very real. And trust me, I'm not a teaching-moment kind of a girl. As I sit in doctors' waiting rooms, looking around, I feel gratitude in a way I never have before. I didn't have to lose my hair, my appetite, days or months of my life in treatment, to learn a lesson.

Physically, I'm strong, and I want to make myself stronger. I've started eating better and exercising more—and with greater intention. The phrase gets thrown around a lot, but I think I finally understand what that means. I'm not doing things simply because I'm supposed to. I've made a clear decision about the way I want to live. I've also made a conscious choice to stop beating myself up emotionally about the things I don’t have—a boyfriend, a kid, a better apartment. Sure, I can still work myself up about small things out of my control, but it happens less often. There's a lightness to my snarky personality that wasn’t there a few months ago—and I like it. I'm not even stressing about the huge scar on my leg, which is perfectly ironic considering what sent me to the doctor in the first place. I like to call that progress.

Get screened annually—it could save your life. For info on free screenings in your area, click here.

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