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“I’m Low-Key Terrified Of The Sun Now.” What It’s Like To Get Melanoma At 23

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. 
Photo: Courtesy of Izzy Tomassi
In June 2022, 23-year-old Izzy Tomassi, a UK-based fashion blogger and digital content creator, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer. Here is her story.
I was probably around 16 when the mole on my chest came out of nowhere. Though initially just the size of a small freckle, it was always a lot darker than the other moles on my body. Over the years, I noticed that it had become much bigger and darker, and despite going to the doctor’s to check on it multiple times (as I have a family history of melanoma), they told me it looked fine. 
I admit that I’ve always loved being in the sun. Growing up, I felt as though I needed to have some kind of tan because I never felt like myself when I was pale. But I can pinpoint when my mole changed. Last year, I went on a few sunbeds before going on holiday to get a 'base tan', which I thought would help me tan better and faster in the sun. [Editor’s note: Dermatologists say that a 'base tan' provides negligible protection from the sun. It is equivalent to about SPF 4, which is far from the minimum SPF 30 that experts recommend.] Thinking I’d be totally fine, I booked in for 10 sunbed sessions before I went away, starting with six minutes, upping this to eight minutes and then 10 minutes each time. When I was on holiday, I was out in the sun and tanning every day. Though I used a high-factor sunscreen on my face, I used a tanning oil containing just SPF 8 on my body. Basically, the SPF was nonexistent. 
When I returned home, I noticed my mole had got a lot bigger; I’d say about the size of one of my fingernails. On closer inspection, it had become irregular in shape and even darker than before. I’d once read that moles are meant to resemble other moles on your body but this one didn’t look like anything else. Weirdly enough, it looked like a flower. That was when I decided to go back to the doctor’s. This time I lied and said that the mole had been itching (even though it hadn’t), just so they’d take me seriously. 

I suspected that doctors thought I wanted my unusual-looking mole removed for vanity reasons. But deep down, I knew something was wrong.

Part of me thought that my age was a factor in why my doctor wasn’t concerned about my mole to begin with. I also suspected they thought I wanted it removed for vanity reasons. Deep down, however, I knew something was wrong. Thankfully, I was eventually referred to the hospital, where the doctors put the ball in my court. They suggested that I could get it removed if I wanted to but that I didn’t have to. All I remember them saying is that if it were to come off, it would leave a "really ugly" scar. They kept focusing on how my chest would look post-removal but I didn’t care about that. I just wanted to know I was going to be okay. 
Three or four weeks after the initial appointment, a surgeon removed my mole under local anaesthetic and stitched me back up. The mole was sent for a biopsy and about five weeks later, I got another appointment at the hospital. Certain it would just be a checkup, I thought nothing of it and that I’d be absolutely fine. 
You never think it’s going to be you, especially at 23. I never burn in the sun and I’ve always tanned easily. But that’s when my doctor dropped the news: "It’s really good that you had the mole taken off," they said. Then it hit me. I had stage 1B melanoma, an early stage of skin cancer.
I thought that if my mole was cancerous and had been removed, that would be the end of it. Little did I know, I actually had one of the most aggressive forms of melanoma, which spreads the quickest. As I tried to wrap my head around it all, the doctor said that it was important to check my lymph nodes, which they told me is where the cancer will head first before it spreads around your body. It was so scary. The appointment fell during my lunch break at work and I was not expecting to hear such heavy news. I went back to work in absolute shock. 
It was another four weeks before I was referred to Southampton Hospital, where surgeons and skin cancer nurses talked me through the next steps. First, a lymph node biopsy to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread. Second, a wide local excision, which would require removing two centimetres of skin around the mole to check that there were not any cancerous cells remaining and so that it didn’t come back. The mole was on my chest so it was a really delicate place, which meant I had to have a skin graft. Unfortunately, as the National Health Service is so understaffed at the moment, I was told I would be looking at a 16-week wait for the skin removal. That’s when my mind went into total overdrive. 
I was so worried and anxious and I just wanted to know that I was going to be okay there and then. The hospital sent me away with lots of information packs but the way they word them is horrible; they tell you all of the bad things which could happen to you. At that moment, I didn’t want to know that people die from melanoma. I was all over the place and though the hospital offered counselling and free therapy, I leaned heavily on my boyfriend and family for emotional support. 

I'm low-key terrified of the sun now because this is what it did to my body.

I’m really into manifestation and I decided that I needed to snap out of it. I’m young, fit and healthy and I had to believe that I was going to be alright. I tried not to think about it and got on with my normal day-to-day life as much as I could, channelling lots of positive energy including booking a trip to Paris. Four months passed and the hospital called to say that they had a cancellation. I had the operation on Valentine’s Day this year.
When I came out of the hospital I was healing fine but one day on a shopping trip with my mum, while trying on clothes, I noticed really painful lumps in my neck. They were incredibly swollen — almost the size of a golf ball. It turned out I had an infection in my skin graft and the swelling had made its way to my glands. My chest was literally purple, as half of the skin graft had healed and the other half had been rejected. From there, it was a waiting game. Doctors told me the skin might just fall off and that we would have to treat the wound, which was awful to hear. I wasn’t allowed a shower for an entire month! In the end, the skin graft finally began to heal properly, though I don’t want to jinx it because they say it can take two years. 
Doctors told me that sunbeds are a no-go and I’m low-key terrified of the sun now because this is what it did to my body. Once you get melanoma, doctors say you’re more susceptible to it, which is terrifying. Now I’m all over the SPF 50 — even my facial moisturiser contains a high-factor sunscreen. I recently learned that UV rays can penetrate your attire but that hasn’t stopped me from revamping my whole wardrobe to include lots of high-neck and long-sleeve clothes. Alongside protective linen pieces and SPF, I’m going to be living in big bucket hats this summer. I’m more mindful of holidays, too. In the future, I’m going to avoid going on sunbeds beforehand and I won’t be sunbathing or sitting by the pool very much. 
Photo: Courtesy of Izzy Tomassi
On 4th April I got the all clear. I no longer have skin cancer. I’m so lucky, thankful, grateful and blessed to have come out the other side but that doesn’t mean it’s over for me. I have to check the lymph nodes in my armpit, neck and groin every month, and I have to go back to the hospital every three months for a whole-body mole map where they check every single mole on my body to make sure they’re not cancerous. When your health is on the line, all you want is to be okay. For the past six months, my whole life has been on hold. There were so many things I wanted to do and couldn’t. I dreamt of quitting my job and starting my own business full-time but I couldn’t do that because I needed time off, which included sick pay. I planned to do entertainment on cruises but I needed to be available for appointments so that fell through. 

You never think it's going to be you, especially at 23. But then my doctor dropped the news: I had stage 1B melanoma. 

Tanned skin is certainly a beauty standard that we strive for. You think you look nice as your freckles come out and it makes you feel good. I admit that I still want to look tanned but now I’ll only reach for the fake stuff. Despite my ordeal, I know people who still use sunbeds all the time. If I were to go on holiday with them, they’d be out in the sun all day while I’d be under an umbrella and applying sunscreen from head to toe. But now I know that tanning isn’t worth the risk. While there are many different forms of skin cancer, I can’t express how dangerous tanning is. If my story convinces someone to start wearing SPF, I’ll feel like my job here is done. 
The thing is, you never think something like this is going to happen to you until it’s too late. I’ve taken to TikTok and Instagram to share my story and lots of people say that I’m lucky to have discovered the cancer early because it wasn’t the same for their mum or their friend. I’ve come across Facebook pages set up to raise awareness of those who have lost their lives to skin cancer. I just think, For the sake of a tan, what is the point? There really is none. Now, I’m just trying to get that into everyone’s heads. Even if you aren’t burning, it doesn't mean you aren’t damaging your skin. It’s taken me this entire nightmare to learn that. 
The following interview was told to Jacqueline Kilikita and has been edited for length and clarity.
The British Skin Foundation, The Skin Cancer Foundation, and The Melanoma Research Alliance support Refinery29’s mission to promote sun safety.
If you or anyone you know is going through cancer, reach out to Macmillan Cancer Support, which offers free, confidential support to people living with cancer and their loved ones.

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