Tampa, Florida - I was 29 years old when I first heard the word melanoma, or at least really understood what it meant.
I can't forget the day, September 30, 2002. As an investigative reporter working at a television station in Jacksonville, I worked all shifts and didn't have much time for anything else.
A dermatologist I interviewed for several TV stories hounded me to get a full-body skin cancer exam. It took a while, but finally I made an appointment. I figured we'd talk about the latest vitamin C cream instead of skin cancer, but he ended up finding a suspicious spot on my stomach. He performed a biopsy and that was it.
Or so I thought.
A few days later, he was holding my hand telling me I had cancer... melanoma, a potentially deadly and aggressive cancer that doesn't respond well to traditional cancer treatments.
He could tell by the look on my face I couldn't believe that something on the surface of my skin, something that I thought was a light-colored, tan mole on my stomach, could kill me.
That's when he said, "Heather, if you didn't come in for a full body skin cancer exam and biopsy, I doubt you would've lived to see your 35th birthday. You're lucky we caught this at such an early stage."
This is heavy news to hear at any age, especially 29. My husband Mike and I had only been married for three years. We wanted to have a family and I just accepted a new position at Tampa Bay's 10 News.
I should not have been surprised to have been diagnosed at such an early age. Melanoma is the number one cancer killer of women 25 to 29 years old.
While the most common skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma, mainly stays on the surface of your skin, melanoma can grow down into your bloodstream and later appear in your brain, lungs and other vital organs.
That's why you have to catch it early like I did.
Skin cancer can give you warning signs. You just have to pay attention to any changes in your skin.
Warning signs can include any one of the following symptoms: itching, bleeding, asymmetrical edges, irregular borders, color changes larger than a pencil eraser. Mine had an irregular border.
Anyone can get skin cancer, but you're more at risk if you have light eyes, light hair, light complexion , several moles, if you've had more than two sunburns before the age of 20 or have used a tanning bed.
The American Academy of Dermatology says, "Contrary to the claims of many tanning parlors, tanning beds are not safe. In fact, they cause deeper damage. UVA rays used in tanning beds have a suspected link to melanoma, immune system damage and premature aging."
As for the argument that you need sunlight to make vitamin D, a melanoma expert with the Moffitt Cancer Center told me we get enough sun exposure walking to our cars and running errands in Florida.
It's important to know if anyone in your family has had skin cancer, but keep in mind, 10 percent of the cases are genetic. Ninety percent are caused by sun exposure.
My husband and I still love spending our weekends outside, but now I wear tightly woven clothing that has SPF 50 and a floppy hat or I find a way to hang out in the shade. I wear chemical free sunscreen and I've found a great mineral make-up that has a bronzer when I need it.
Melanoma has a 50 percent recurrence rate, so I see Dr. James Spencer in St. Petersburg for a full body skin cancer exam every three months.
An oncologist suggested I do everything I can to keep my immune system strong. I took that advice to heart. I've made a dramatic lifestyle change. I now evaluate whether foods and everyday products will help me or hurt me.
I eat a lot of fresh, organic simple foods such as wild salmon, steamed kale with garlic and extra virgin olive oil and pure, unsweetened organic cranberry juice mixed with water. Yes, it has been a learning curve to make food that's good for you, taste really good!
"Fast food" now means a quick trip to the deli at Village Health Market in Tampa where I can grab a fresh salad or chicken soup to go.
I've also switched out a lot of the products I use everyday including hairspray, make-up, cleaning products to buy safer versions. It's not easy researching chemicals in everyday products when they don't give you a lot of information on the labels. If I can't pronounce it, there's a good chance I won't buy it.
I have to admit, I almost missed that skin cancer appointment years ago. I thought I had too many other important things to do. It ended up becoming the most important thing I've ever done.
September 30, 2002 certainly changed my life and in many ways, changed it for the better.
I guess that's the blessing in disguise.
I encourage you to take advantage of the free skin cancer exams offered in our area. May is Melanoma Awareness Month.