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A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self



Duly Noted

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Dear 16-year-old me,

I don’t know if you’ll listen to this. You’re a little stubborn, and you kind of think you know it all. Not to mention, you think, it won’t happen to me. But guess what? It does.

You know you’re fair-skinned and you burn easily in the sun. You think you look so much better with a tan, and you love those darned tanning beds. You’re like a lizard on a hot rock. They will later prove that your compulsive tanning is an addiction. You are hooked on the relaxing sensation of the chemicals that are released in your brain in response to the UV light.

You know better, but you keep doing it anyway. It doesn’t catch up with you until you’re in your 30s. Your first diagnosis is the most dreaded one of all: melanoma. You are so clueless about how deadly this cancer is; you balk when the doctor tells you that you have to go in for surgery the very next day. It all becomes a little more real when you see how big the incision is. You’ll say how can that be? The spot was only about the size of a pencil eraser. Sure it had irregular borders and it had weird dark spots, but a 10-inch scar? There go tank tops and anything backless, including a wedding dress. The real gravity of it sets in when you lose two dear friends to melanoma. They weren’t as lucky as you.

The hits will keep coming. Your dermatologist will be so concerned about you that you will have to go in every three months for skin checks. Yep, it’s inconvenient, but you’ll be glad you kept those appointments, because over the next 20 years, you will be diagnosed with 31 more skin cancers—mostly basal cell carcinomas, but a few squamous cell cancers too. You’ll endure surgery for every one of them, a rather expensive surgery called a Mohs procedure. In fact, if I could add up how much you’ll spend on skin cancer over the years, you could be driving a much nicer car, be able to afford all those upgrades you want to do to your house or have a nice cushion in your retirement account. No, still don’t care? Imagine what all those scars look like. Think patchwork quilt.

So, teenage Jan, know that in a few years they will come out with sunless tanner that works really well. (OK, the early ones turn you apricot orange and make you smell like dirty socks, but they eventually get it right.) Or, I wish you would just learn to love yourself as you are. It will save you much heartache over the next few decades. And in case you’re wondering—and I know you are—you do meet the man of your dreams and he accepts you and loves you whether you’re carrying a few extra pounds, pasty white or recovering from your latest surgery.

It’s a good life, but you can save yourself a lot of misery if you’ll embrace your pink, freckled skin and protect yourself from the sun. And here’s a bonus: by staying out of the sun, you won’t get as many wrinkles and will look years younger. Just trust me on that one.

Signed,

Your 51-year-old self

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