Survivor Stories

Colleen Sawaia

Diagnosed 11/18/2009

I started using the tanning beds to tan for my Junior Prom. From there, I would go tanning during only the summers. When I was in college, I would go on and off during the year. The last 3 years, I went consistently ranging from once every 10 days to 2 times per week. The important thing to see here is that I never really burned and I tanned very easily. I did not go to the beach often, but when I did, I never used sunscreen. The fact that I was young, with no family history of skin cancer, and that I rarely burned made me think I would never get skin cancer.

One day when I was putting on lotion, I thought I felt something on my left buttock. I looked to see what it was and it was a very small, slightly pink, almost flesh colored bump. I thought maybe I touched one of the tanning bulbs and got a little burn there. I didn’t really give any more thought to it. Over the next year, the bump got slightly bigger and more pink in color. I went to a dermatologist and explained my concern. I told her I did go tanning and I noticed this new thing on my buttock. She took one look at it and said it is nothing to worry about. She told me it was smaller then a pencil eraser, it was all one color and even edged, and basically it was just a new mole. She made me feel stupid for being concerned. She told me that they don’t like to remove things don’t need to be removed, and just to keep an eye on it.

So, I watched it, and really thought if a dermatologist said I was ok, then I must be. I continued tanning and the spot did get bigger. It grew very slowly, it remained pink, but darkened to a deep pink now and it didn’t hurt or bleed. It was perfectly round and all the same color. I thought oh no, melanoma means it would have to be dark brown, or black and uneven colored, with an irregular border.
I finally went to my PCP about 2 years after this started growing. She was a NP and thought it could be something, but not skin cancer. She recommended I make an appointment with the doctor to look at it. Well I made the appointment that day. The earliest I could get was about 4 weeks away. I ended-up having to cancel it. I rescheduled as soon as I could.

By the time I saw the doctor the area had grown even more. It now developed a light brown color to the outer portion of the mole. So the mole was still completely round, but the outer ring of the mole was now brown. The doctor told me I had ring worm and gave me an ointment to use. I tried to explain that this spot had changed color and I have had it for about 3 years and it continued to grow. He told me he didn’t want to remove it because it was nothing serious. So, I used the cream and of course nothing happened. I never went back to him.

I am a nurse and was working at Beth Israel Deaconnes in Boston at this time. I had a patient one day who was 52 and just diagnosed with Stage 4 Melanoma with about 6 months to live. This man had a scab on his head that didn’t heal, so he went to he doctor and just got this diagnosis. It had now spread to his lungs, brain and bones in a matter of a few weeks. As I watched this poor man receive this grave, awful, terrifying news, I thought to myself he is so young. This was such a shock. I need to get checked.
I made an appointment with a new PCP there at BI and she gave me a referral to see a dermatologist. I had the appointment, still expecting it wouldn’t be anything serious, maybe basal cell carcinoma. The doctor took one look at it and said it doesn’t look good and it needed to be removed. My heart started pounding and I started crying. I was so scared of the unknown.

They took the biopsy and called me about a week later with the results. Sure enough it was melanoma. I still couldn’t believe it. I was 24 years old. I don’t know why I thought that just because I was young I was immune to this. I just sat there silent for a minute and then asked ok, now what? The nurse said I would have to come in and get a bigger area removed. That was the only explanation I got.

I went in for the next surgery and was completely shocked to the extent of skin/tissue that needed to be removed. They decided to remove a little more than usual because I was so young and they wanted to be sure they got everything. They removed tissue down to the muscle and I think I had about 76 stitches total. It was a bit traumatic because I was going to be left with a huge scar and indent to my butt. It may sound vain, but it bothered me to know I just had a huge chunk of my body removed. Luckily, all that tissue they removed came back clear. I was diagnosed with Stage I, Clark’s Level 2 Melanoma.

The recovery was uncomfortable and there are still days where the area aches.
I still don’t have any feeling to that area. It has now been about a year and half since this happened and I still can’t believe it.

I look at that scar every day and it is a constant reminder of my melanoma. It reminds me that I am not invincible and that this is real. I won’t lie and say I don’t miss tanning, but I have not gone since. I’m just mad at myself, that I let vanity get in the way. Yes, you might feel prettier, or better being tan, but is it really worth your life? I am proof that you really do never know what can happen, and I am not the typical high risk person.

I just want to get my message across to young people and let them know it can happen to you. Even if you don’t have fair skin, even if you never burn, even if you are young, it can happen.

My prognosis is good and my chances of reoccurrence are low, but I still don’t want to risk having more scars and pieces of my body removed. You can’t predict where it might strike next and that is just it, this disease is unpredictable.

There are times where I worry myself sick and get depressed about it, but I have to remind myself that I have to just live my life and be more careful. I always use SPF 70 when I know I will be outside in the sun. I limit any time I do spend in the sun and I don’t go in the sun for the purpose of tanning. If I go to the beach, I sit under an umbrella.
I am still so thankful that I had that patient that day and in my eyes he was my angel sent from God to give me that push to go get checked. His unfortunate and tragic situation helped save someone else’s life, hopefully my story can do the same.

Colleen Sawaia

26 years young