(NEW YORK) — Amanda Hunt, a Florida native, said she grew up spending summer days at the beach as a child and using tanning beds as a young adult.
Now 39 years old, Hunt, of Titusville, Florida, is battling stage 4 metastatic melanoma and is speaking out about her experience in hopes of saving other lives.
“I want people to know the things that I didn’t know,” Hunt told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “I can say for myself that having to fight for your life due to something so superficial as being tan, that’s a really tough pill to swallow at the end of the day.”
Hunt’s life changed last June when she discovered a lump in her breast. A biopsy of the lump came back as malignant melanoma. Hunt then learned the cancer had spread throughout her body, including her lungs.
“One day you wake up and your life is one way and the next day you wake up and your life is totally different,” she said. “I remember being shocked and confused and I got angry and thought, ‘How did my body fail me?'”
Hunt said she was even more shocked by her diagnosis because she had been going to annual skin checks since 2011, when she was successfully treated for basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer.
After undergoing treatment for her first skin cancer diagnosis, Hunt said she stopped using tanning beds but did not change her daily sun protection routine dramatically, knowing that she was being checked annually by her dermatologist.
“I got my annual skin checks so that was always in the back of my mind like a crutch,” she said. “But I learned in all of this that there is an occurrence where you do not have melanoma appear on the skin. I never knew that was even possible.”
Hunt’s diagnosis made her one of the approximately 3% of cases where the melanoma has already spread to a subcutaneous site when it is discovered, according to her doctor, Zeynep Eroglu, a medical oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.
Because the spread of melanoma was already underway in Hunt’s body, she began treatment less than one month after being diagnosed. Since July 2020, Hunt has made the four-hour roundtrip drive from Titusville to Tampa to undergo immunotherapy treatments at Moffitt.
The treatments have been working but Hunt has suffered severe side effects from the immunotherapy, including being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes this March.
“It happens to less than 1% of [immunotherapy] patients,” she said of the diabetes diagnosis. “Everything in my case is rare and the exception.”
Hunt, an attorney, lost her job due to layoffs during the pandemic just two days before her diagnosis. Not long after, she said she started a blog, Love and Sunblock, about her battle with melanoma to educate and provide hope to others.
“When I was first diagnosed, I started searching the internet for information and all I could find were just grave statistics,” said Hunt, whose family and friends started a GoFundMe to help cover her medical expenses. “I started blogging about my journey because I wanted to be that person for someone else in the future, that person that I was desperately trying to find.”
Hunt said her diagnosis has made her reflect on the time she spent in the sun as a child, spending hours at the beach without reapplying sunscreen and spending hours in tanning beds to try to overcome her naturally pale skin.
“I even remember missing school because of sunburns,” she said. “I was on my way to becoming a melanoma statistic and had no idea.”
Now, Hunt said she covers herself from head to toe to even walk to the mailbox and is making sure her 14-year-old daughter learns important lessons about incorporating sun protection into her daily skin care routine.
“It’s almost always preventable,” Hunt said of skin cancer. “Sun protection has got to become a habit and it’s got to start with your kids.”
What to know about melanoma and sun protection
Melanoma is a rare form of skin cancer in which cancer cells form in melanocytes, the cells that color the skin, according to the National Cancer Institute.
It can occur anywhere on the body, but in women is found most often on the arms and legs, according to NCI.
The main risk factors for melanoma include exposure to ultraviolet rays, which are found in tanning beds and sun lamps, a family history of melanoma, a personal history of melanoma or other skin cancers, a weakened immune system, moles and a complexion of fair skin, freckling and light hair, according to the American Cancer Society .
In the United States, the risk for melanoma varies by age. Before age 50, the risk for melanoma is higher for women; after age 50 the risk is higher in men, according to ACS.
In order to prevent the occurrence of melanoma, Hunt’s doctor, Eroglu, shared four tips:
1. Go to the dermatologist early and often: “With melanoma, every millimeter matters,” said Eroglu. “Time is really of the essence. If there is any concern, go and have it checked out.”
Eroglu also stressed persistence in seeking testing and a diagnosis if something on your skin continues to look abnormal to you.
2. Always wear sunscreen and reapply it often: Eroglu recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and reapplying it often, especially when exposed to water.
A broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects you from UVA rays, which can prematurely age your skin, and UVB rays, which can burn your skin, is also recommended.
It matters less what type of sunscreen you use — spray or lotion or cream — and more that you choose a type of sunscreen you will use consistently and frequently, according to Eroglu.
“Even one bad sunburn from when you were a child can years later, decades later, develop into skin cancer,” she said.
3. Avoid the sun when it is at its strongest: The sun’s rays are at their peak from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. so it is best to avoid being exposed to the sun at that time, according to Eroglu.
People should also be extra vigilant with sun protection when near water, sand and snow because the sun’s rays are strengthened by the reflection off those surfaces.
People should also avoid using tanning beds, according to Eroglu, because of the intensity of their ultraviolet radiation.
4. Do regular skin checks on yourself: People should regularly lookout for new spots or a spot that is changing in size, shape or color on their skin, according to Eroglu.
The ABCDE rule is a guide people can follow to see if any spots have features that need to be flagged to a doctor.
Here is the rule, as described by the American Cancer Society.
A is for Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
B is for Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
C is for Color: The color is not the same all over and may include different shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
D is for Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across (about 1/4 inch — the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.
E is for Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.
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