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Dnitra Ayers, a wife, mother, conservation advocate and melanoma survivor, shares her story for Melanoma Awareness Month.
I grew up in Santa Monica, California, with my mom and our 16 cats, a parrot, some chinchillas, a dog or two and various other critters. So I was basically born a “crazy cat lady.” After that, I lived on the Big Island of Hawaii for a while, then moved to the Hood Canal area of Washington State with my husband and my son, where we’ve been for almost 14 years.
The Pacific Northwest is my favorite place. Even though I’ve lived in many beautiful places, I find the Pacific Northwest to be the most beautiful. I love to spend time outside, especially by the ocean or lakes. Since I grew up a couple of miles from the Pacific Ocean, the water has always held a special place in my heart. I find a certain serenity in it that I don’t find anywhere else.
That’s probably why my hobbies include kayaking, kayaking and, when I’m not busy, kayaking! I’m relatively new to it, but I enjoy paddling as many days as I can. I’m also passionate about conservation, animal welfare and the environment. Because of that, I volunteer at a wild cat sanctuary that houses 57 wild cats from the smallest Geoffroy’s cat to two large Bengal and Siberian tigers.
It’s also part of the reason why I started using mineral sunscreen. In 1992, the damage to Hawaii’s reef was becoming apparent at Hanama Bay on Oahu. Seeing the extreme changes to the ocean in just a few years, it was hard not to become aware, concerned and motivated to help raise awareness.
For most of my life, I was a cursory sunscreen user and not very careful, despite spending much of my time outside. I also used to be an obsessive sun seeker, always wanting to have tan skin that’s not in my DNA as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned person.
In December of 2014, I was diagnosed with melanoma. A friend of mine, who is also my hair-cutter, had noticed a “spot” behind my ear. Since I’m freckled all over and have sun-damaged skin, I didn’t think much about it. Several months later, I had another haircut, and he asked if I ever had it looked at. Because I couldn’t see it or feel it, I kept forgetting about it. At that point, I wasn’t having regular skin cancer checks. I hadn’t had one in 8 years, actually.
When I finally asked my primary doctor to look at it “so my friend would stop bugging me,” she said it was probably nothing but we’d biopsy it. Less than a week later, and right before Christmas, the doctor called and said, “you have an appointment with a surgeon this week.” It was melanoma, and it had to come out immediately.
Going through Treatment
They saved my ear by grafting some skin from my chest and suturing my ear to my scalp while it healed. I was very lucky and didn’t require any radiation or further treatments. Until my next skin check with a dermatologist. Then, I started a quarterly journey of freezings and topical treatments that have left me scarred from head to toe. I had to do 30 treatments of a topical chemo cream on my face and chest. But I only made it 13 days before the pain was so severe I couldn’t do it anymore.
Since then, I’ve been on a similar cream for my arms, hands, chest, face and ears. I use it weekly, and probably will for the rest of my life. When I went for my last skin check in January 2019, my doctor gave me a big hug. She congratulated me on 5 years cancer-free. Then she did my skin check. While nothing really stood out to her as alarming, she asked if I had any spots of concern. I mentioned one tiny little spot on the back of my arm that seemed slightly darker than the others. Once again, she said, “it’s probably nothing, but let’s do a biopsy.”
One week later, I received the call that it was in fact melanoma and would require a wide margin excision. The spot itself had been smaller than a pencil eraser. But my doctor had to cut out 3.8 inches of tissue. I am presently eight weeks post-procedure and am healing up well with a very pretty four-inch scar.
Changing My Sun Protection Habits
Because I’m so passionate about the outdoors, I still spend a lot of time outside (did I mention I kayak?). But, as someone who’s been diagnosed with melanoma twice, I needed to make some changes. Now, I am much more careful about my sun exposure. I try to schedule my time in the sun earlier in the mornings or later in the day. And, of course, I use sunscreen every day regardless of how sunny it is or whether I even plan on being outside. When I do plan to be outside for any length of time, I apply to as many exposed body parts as possible. I try to reapply more often. I’m not as good about wearing sun-safe clothing and staying safely covered up, but I’m working on that.
After my procedure in 2014, I also began looking for mineral sunscreen. Even though things had changed, I wanted to enjoy the outdoors as much as possible, and to do it safely. Because of that, I wanted a product that was more environmentally friendly and didn’t contain oxybenzone. After using another mineral sunscreen for a while, I found Goddess Garden. While I liked the other product well enough, their customer relations department was not very kind or receptive. I fell in love with Goddess Garden not just because of the excellent, reef-safe sun protection, but also because of their customer support team! They’ve been very kind and have donated products to events that raise funds for melanoma research, like UCanRow2, an online indoor rowing event.
Spreading the Word
I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been through, and what I continue to go through. Because of that, I’m definitely an advocate for mineral sunscreen and try to share my experience with others whenever possible. Once, I walked an entire Relay for Life with a “survivor” t-shirt on and mineral sunscreen in-hand. I wanted to spark a conversation. I wanted to spread the word about melanoma and how to be sun-safe by using a mineral sunscreen. Having a product and a company like Goddess Garden behind me, helping me enjoy the sun safely, just inspires me to spread the word even more!
- A Daughter’s Story: An Auto-Immune Disorder and Sunscreen (Guest Post)
- Sunscreen and Coral Reef Conservation (Guest Post)
- Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreen
- What Is Oxybenzone and Why Is it in Sunscreen?
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