The funny thing is, I was never a sun person, because I sunburned easily, and I had always worn SPF 20 growing up.
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Back in 2005, I was just starting my freshman year at Western Carolina University when my mom noticed that a dark brown mole about the size of a pencil eraser had appeared on the back of my left calf. She’s a nurse, so she scheduled an appointment a couple weeks later with a dermatologist to look at it. I said to a friend, “What if this is something serious?” but I also thought, Skin cancer isn’t something that happens to young people.

My appointment was for 5 o’clock, after my classes ended for the day. When my mom and I walked in, I saw a tray with a needle on it. I said to her, “Is that for me?” and she said no. But as soon as the physician’s assistant saw the mole, he said, “We’re going to remove that right now.” That needle was for me—they used it to numb the area. Caught off guard, I was like a deer in the headlights while they cut it out.

The doctors said they would call my mom in a week with the biopsy results. I returned to school, terrified. The day we were supposed to hear, Friday, September 23, my mom never phoned, which was strange. Finally she called to say that she and Dad were in their car outside my dorm; they had driven an hour to school to have dinner with me. I knew it was bad news.

As we were driving to the restaurant, they talked about everything else except what I was waiting to hear. Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer and I said, “So—what is it?” What happened next is such a blur, but basically the news was: It’s cancer. You will have to have surgery. I was angry. I felt like, I’m in college, this isn’t fair, this is not supposed to happen to someone my age!

The following Monday, I took a medical withdrawal from school, and less than two weeks later, surgeons cut out an area of tissue about two inches wide on my calf, all the way down to the muscle. Because the mole had appeared out of nowhere, was so big and dark, and turned out to be a Stage III Clark’s melanoma, they were worried it was very fast growing and might have spread, so they also removed four lymph nodes. Fortunately the biopsy found no cancer there.

I had a big hole in my leg, so about a week later, after I had healed a bit, a plastic surgeon put staples all around the hole and ran metal thread through the staples, which they slowly tightened, week by week, to shrink the hole. It was so painful.

I took that entire semester off; I was stuck at home while my friends were going on with their lives, being normal 18-year-olds and having fun. But I fought the urge to feel bad for myself—what good would it do to sit around and mope? And I focused on the positives, like the fact that the cancer had not spread. I also found out who my good friends were—the people who kept in touch the whole time I was out and then acted like nothing had changed when I got back to school the next January.

The funny thing is, I was never a sun person, because I sunburned easily, and I had always worn SPF 20 growing up. But it turned out that I had a great-uncle who’d died of melanoma—my family knew about it but I didn’t because he died before I was born—and the doctors think that my genes, and the fact that I used a tanning bed a handful of times in high school, may have been enough to cause this.

I still see a dermatologist every six months, but I have been cancer-free for 10 years! I also have a noticeable scar on my leg, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s a reminder of what I went through and how strong I know I can be. Now, when I hear younger people say they want to be tan, I think: Looking cool is not worth your life.

Special thanks to the Skin Cancer Foundation.