Welcome to Sun Blocked, Refinery29’s global call to action to wake up to the serious dangers of tanning. No lectures or shaming, we promise. Instead, our goal is to arm you with the facts you need to protect your skin to the best of your ability, because there’s no such thing as safe sun.
Actor Michelle Monaghan’s life changed when she was diagnosed with melanoma. Getting the skin cancer removed opened her eyes to the extreme dangers of UV exposure and she is now a keen advocate for skin cancer awareness, including regular skin checks and wearing sunscreen no matter the weather or time of year. Here is Michelle’s story.
I grew up in Iowa where I worked in fields throughout the summer. I would often not wear any sunscreen whatsoever, but we didn’t have a lot of sun-sense back then and there was very little information about skin cancer. We would go to the pool and run around town wearing very little sunscreen; we also wanted to be a little "sun-kissed" for our homecoming or our prom. I’m the gal who would buy the 10-pack at the tanning salon. I remember the very first time I went in for that 20-minute session; I came out burned to a crisp because I have such fair skin. Little did we all know at the time how very dangerous tanning beds are.
I’d always had a mole — a little smaller than my pinky nail — on the back of my left calf. I never paid any attention to it. In fact, I didn’t know anything about changing moles, let alone what skin cancer was. I didn’t know it even existed. One day, in 2007, my husband noticed that my mole had changed. I was like, "What are you talking about?" I completely disregarded it but after really inspecting the mole, I realised it did look darker in some places and that it had an uneven border. Now I know that these are skin changes we’re advised to look out for in regard to melanoma. That’s when my husband told me he thought it was skin cancer. He’s Australian so he grew up well-informed about the dangers of the sun. Still, I ignored him for about a year.
Finally, my husband put his foot down and told me to go and get the mole checked out. Surprisingly, even my dermatologist said that she thought it was fine but advised removing it to be on the safe side. I had a biopsy and the results came back a week later. "This is really dangerous," the dermatologist said. "It’s melanoma." Even at that point, I still knew very little about skin cancer so I was like, "Okay!" I didn’t know that melanoma could be fatal. Once I got off the phone, I told my husband that it was melanoma and he responded, "It’s melanoma? That’s serious." And it was. The dermatologist told me that I would need to have a more significant surgery and she took away about an inch of skin in every direction to make sure we caught all of the cancer cells. It was pretty major to have something cut out of me.
During this time, I started to educate myself about melanoma skin cancer and I began to understand the prognosis, including all the different types of skin cancer. Maybe it was good that I was a little naive at the time because I really didn’t understand how severe it was until I had to have the surgery. Thankfully, we caught all of the cancer and I didn’t require any additional treatment. I've had no recurrence of cancer since but I’ve done a lot of research throughout the years in terms of the causes of skin cancer and for me, it’s the cumulative effect. I am predisposed to skin cancer genetically but not wearing sunscreen and exposing myself to the dangers of tanning beds were all additive to that.
I feel like skin cancer is dismissed a lot, especially in women. I actually have a record of my moles and I take photos of them. That way, I can look at them a year later and see if they’ve changed, then show that to a dermatologist. Even taking my past history of melanoma into account, I’ve had doctors tell me I don’t need to remove moles I’m concerned about. I try not to be an alarmist but I found a mole a few years ago in between my toes. It wasn’t there before — my skin checks are thorough! A lot of us forget to cover up our feet and they are often exposed. I got a second opinion on the mole, had it removed and biopsied, and discovered it was precancerous. Now, if I don’t have a good feeling about a mole, I ask my dermatologist to remove it, as I’d rather be safe than sorry. And when it comes to surgery, we’ve come so far; we’re talking about leaving a minimal scar. I think it’s such a shame that doctors put vanity — like how a scar or mark will look — before the actual health of the patient. It’s irresponsible.
I am predisposed to skin cancer genetically but not wearing sunscreen and exposing myself to the dangers of tanning beds were all additive to that.
Just as I was recovering, my husband and I embarked on having a family. Having had skin cancer, it became important to take this newfound knowledge and apply it to my children. Skin Cancer Awareness Month is in May so we make it our family business to go and get our skin checked every year. As a result, my husband has had a couple of basal cell skin cancers removed from his arms. Some studies say that 25% to 50% of UV exposure up until age 60 occurs in childhood. That’s significant. We have to teach our children the responsibility of learning good sun care habits because we don’t know how that sun damage will manifest in later years. For some, it’s freckles, sun spots or wrinkles — if they’re lucky. For the rest, it’s actual skin cancer. Sun protection shouldn’t feel like a burden. It’s a privilege to have this kind of knowledge.
I came across a great quote recently: "Nothing looks better in your 50s than applying sunscreen in your 20s." I wholeheartedly believe that. I love the sun and the outdoors; I surf, I hike, I like to golf. But now that I have sun sense, I keep myself protected. My car windows are tinted to keep out UV rays and you’ll always find me in a hat. When I’m at the beach, I’m always under an umbrella. If I go swimming I wear a rash vest or clothing with UPF protection. I have an SPF basket, an SPF drawer, I have all the SPFs. My day-to-day sunscreen is EltaMD UV Daily SPF 40 and I also like La Roche-Posay Anthelios UVMUNE 400 Invisible Fluid SPF50. I love to reapply MD Solar Sciences Solar Stick SPF 40, and enjoy using rms Beauty SuperNatural Radiance Serum Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Sunscreen. Sunscreen has come a long way and is more inclusive of all skin tones. But whatever sunscreen you’re going to wear consistently is the best sunscreen for you.
I’m not here to sun shame anyone. We all love the sun. We need it. But there’s a distinct lack of awareness around melanoma and sun safety. Get to know your body and slowly but surely try to adopt some sort of sun care protection routine into your life, whether it’s wearing a particular item of clothing that’ll protect you from UV or applying (and reapplying) sunscreen every day. If there’s some sort of awareness that you can centre, that’s your best start.
This interview was told to Jacqueline Kilikita and has been edited for length and clarity.