Burning regrets: My wake-up call for skin protection

A student reflects on her experience with a skin cancer scare that encouraged her to begin practicing sun safety for her health.


I’ve never been a fan of sunscreen. It’s slimy, burns my eyes and as someone whose skin tans fast and rarely burns, putting it on always felt like an unnecessary chore. Instead, I let my skin bake in the sun once the UV index rose in the spring and summer months. 

I was certain my lack of sun protection wasn’t a problem because I wasn’t seeing damage in the form of burns or wrinkles.

That dismissive attitude I had towards sunscreen was problematic for many reasons. My grandfather died of melanoma in 1996, and both of my parents have had basal cell carcinomas – a type of skin cancer that typically develops on areas of skin that are exposed to the sun – removed in recent years.

They often harped on the importance of wearing lotion and hats and avoiding sun exposure, but even my family history and first-hand knowledge that sunscreen was the most effective prevention of skin cancer was not enough of a motivator for me to proactively protect myself. 

I figured if I wasn’t seeing any physical signs of damage then I wasn’t harming my skin, and I prepared myself to take it more seriously when I got a little older. I took the occasional painful and peeling sunburns on the chin, confident I was young enough to not worry about any serious consequences just yet. 

However, in July 2023 I noticed one of my many freckles had started to change. What was once a perfectly round spot on my right forearm was now larger and misshapen, morphing into a splotchy and unfamiliar mark on my skin. 

My parents thought it looked strange, so I casually mentioned it to the doctor during my yearly dermatologist appointment in August. She was concerned, far more than I was, and said the changes I noticed and the appearance of the freckle were abnormal. 

I expected her to suggest keeping an eye on the spot and reporting back with further changes, but I was surprised when my dermatologist instead urged me to schedule an appointment as soon as possible to have it removed. I assumed it was simply a preventative health measure, so with little urgency, I scheduled an appointment for mid-December when I would be home for winter break. 

I arrived at the office the week before Christmas, preparing to part ways with my deformed mole. I expected them to zap or gently scrape it off, but the surgeon instead informed me that she was going to perform a punch biopsy, in which a round cutting tool would be used to remove deep layers of my skin for lab testing. 

My skin swelled as they numbed me with a local anesthetic, then pushed in a tool resembling a small cookie cutter, which removed not just my suspicious freckle, but a massive deep chunk of skin and fat, leaving a sizeable hole in my arm that required six stitches to close up. 

When I stood up to leave, the surgical assistant told me the lab would get the cancer results back to me as soon as possible, and to try my best not to worry about the outcome during Christmas. 

At that moment, I recognized for the first time that this was something people typically worried about, and for good reason. I had just watched them perform this procedure, which was much bloodier and more invasive than I expected, and I couldn’t help but feel stupid. I could’ve saved myself all the pain, trouble and money required for the biopsy if I had been more conscious of my skincare in the first place. 

Although the concern was caught early and skin cancer is typically a less aggressive form of cancer, for someone of my age to already have a scare of any kind was not ideal. Despite my youth and relatively good health, I realized I needed to take my skin and my well-being more seriously. 

As much as I like getting a tan and relaxing on the beach or by the pool, the time I spent cooking in the sun and being careless about burns already proved to be dangerous to my health.

Good habits, like finding shade, wearing sunscreen, sunglasses and hats and even staying indoors when UV rays are the strongest, were things I never practiced, but I’m now holding myself accountable to be smart and safe from this point forward.

After a couple of weeks of anxious curiosity, the results of my biopsy fortunately came back in the beginning of January and the mole was benign, meaning it was not cancerous. Although nothing serious came of the situation, I’m still dedicated to my newfound use of sunscreen and sun safety, and I no longer assume that I’m automatically safe from the sun if I’m not putting in the effort to protect myself. 

I may not love sunscreen, but I know now I’d prefer to take the extra effort to be on top of my skin protection than to get another biopsy or battle cancer any time soon. Sunscreen and other methods of sun protection are no longer inconveniences to me but a shield against risk and a worthwhile investment in my future health and well-being.

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