I grew up thinking I was immune to skin cancer based on my ethnicity.  I was wrong.

I grew up thinking I was immune to skin cancer based on my ethnicity. I was wrong.

As told to Nicole Audrey Spector

I grew up in a household where wearing sunscreen was not talked about and was rarely used. Quite the contrary, actually: we doused ourselves in sun oil and baked in the sun. The more sun, the better!

As a Hispanic woman with brown skin, I have enjoyed watching my skin tone get darker in the summer months.

No one in my family knew much about it melanoma or that anyone can get it.

In 2020, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I noticed that a mole on my ankle was getting darker. By this point, I was much more educated about the dangers of skin cancer. As a health writer, I had told a story about a young woman who had melanoma and eventually died of it after the cancer returned and spread.

I made an appointment with a dermatologist. We met on video chat as strict Covid protocols prevented an in-person check.

The dermatologist examined the mole as best he could through our virtual visit and said it looked normal. He didn’t give me additional information, such as signs to watch out for or what changes to be aware of, which, looking back, would have been helpful.

A year later, a completely different skin problem emerged. I had what ended up being a dermatofibroma – a small round bump – on my back. She itched and bothered me. So, I went to see a new dermatologist myself. He diagnosed dermatofibroma and said it wasn’t cancer, but he still advised me to have a full body skin exam. This involved looking closely at every mole on my body.

I showed her the mole on my ankle which the previous dermatologist wasn’t concerned about. He thought it looked suspicious and biopsied it on the spot.

A week later, she called me and told me the mole revealed melanoma. The next step involved numbing my skin and removing a half-dollar-sized amount of tissue to be sure the melanoma hadn’t spread.

I was shocked by my diagnosis and so was my family. I was young, healthy and educated. I wrongly assumed that when you check all those boxes, you are safe from developing any disease or ailment. There’s also the notion that Hispanic/Latino people don’t get skin cancer, but they certainly do.

Even though in my case the melanoma was caught early, the word “cancer” carries some weight. When you hear that you have melanoma it makes you think, think about what’s important, and inspires you to let others know it could happen to them too.

Jocelyn in the hospital2022

I found further comfort in meeting the surgeon who would be performing the procedure. He specializes in burns and wounds. I also met the anesthetist who would be working with the surgeon. He helped calm my nerves about the operation and he even told me what he had Basal cell carcinoma on his face, and it was successfully removed.

“You’ll be fine,” he assured me. “We’ll take care of it.”

One of the nurses preparing me for surgery shared that she too was a skin cancer survivor.

“People with darker skin often think that skin cancer only happens to people with lighter, lighter skin,” the nurse said.

I agreed with her. After all, I once thought so too.

I am extremely lucky that the operation removed all of the cancer. The melanoma had not spread and I needed no further treatment. I am cancer free to date but still have full body skin checks every three months.

My goal is largely to raise awareness in the Hispanic/Latino community. I started at home educating my parents about the importance of sunscreen (how to use sunscreen even on areas you wouldn’t think of putting it on, like the ankles or back of the neck). I also convinced my mom and dad to get full body skin checks, something they had never thought of doing before.

I don’t know if my parents and extended family totally “get” it. But I will not give up on them. I insist they practice sun-safe habits and have their annual skin checkups.

I have also done social media advocacy work to share the threat of skin cancer among people of all races, ethnicities, backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and educations. I was touched when a melanoma survivor reached out to let me know how happy she was that I was sharing this message.

I want everyone to know that the sun does not discriminate. Contact your dermatologist and get checked out. A simple annual exam can save your life.

This resource was created with support from Merck.

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