A Tan is Not A Sign of Health: Sharon McKenna, Melanoma Survivor, Shares Her Story

McKenna works as a sun safety manager with the Arizona Department of Health Services.

McKenna works as a sun safety manager with the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Let’s put it out there—I’m a fair-skinned redhead who grew up believing a tan was a sign of health. I spent summers as a lifeguard and vacations at the beach, and I never wore sunscreen. I started each summer creating that golden-brown tan of my girlhood with a painful sunburn, like a “base coat” of paint. Hey, we all did. It was a sign that summer was here, right?

I use different “base coats” now—like sunscreen and sun-protective clothing. I avoid the sun at peak midday hours, and I spend a lot of time advocating for sun safety. Why? Because I had melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. I learned the hard way: a tan is not a sign of health.

My battle with melanoma began in 2002, after I noticed a small, irregular mole on my lower back. I endured six months of medical tests trying to figure out why I was constantly sick and had low energy, and the mole was the last thing to test. I was anxious to see if this mole had anything to do with my constant sickness and fatigue. It did. Four days after my biopsy, my mother appeared at my door and sat me down to deliver the news: I had stage II melanoma.

To date, I’ve undergone 28 biopsies and had three melanomas surgically removed. I’ve been melanoma-free since 2003, but have had other non-melanoma skin cancers removed since then.

As an adult, my vacations centered around sunbathing. My Jamaican mother and family had the dark skin I wanted to emulate. And yet, they protected their skin and insisted I do the same. Their message went unheeded. In fact, I still had a visible tan line two months after my first melanoma surgery. I was embarrassed and viewed my tan as a badge of shame. I apologized to the melanoma surgical team during anesthesia. But I learned that knowledge is power. Skin cancer is the most preventable of all cancers. Vacations now center around better things than sunbathing. Discovering melanoma changed my life. I became an advocate for sun safety and found a new passion and a new job.

To hear more of my story please visit www.cdc.gov/SharonMckenna

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